The US justice system is flawed in many ways: disproportionately imprisoning minorities, dealing out harsher sentences for drug possession than rape, violation of international standards of decency…the list goes on.
Watch Stephen Colbert expertly explain another flaw with the American justice system: the criminalization of poverty.
Click for the Transcript
STEPHEN COLBERT: Welcome back everybody. Folks, if I know my nation, I do not have to remind anybody out there America is the greatest nation on earth. Why? It’s because we’ve got the greatest, best people on earth. There’s me, there’s you, the list goes on.
But we’ve also got the greatest, worst people on earth because America puts more of its citizens in prison than any other nation. We are number one with the bullet, also number one with an ounce in your pocket. But confining so many Americans comes at a terrible price, which it turns out is money.
The average cost of incarcerating a federal inmate in 2011 was almost $29,000 and in New York City the cost per inmate is $168,000, though the broker will tell you that’s a pretty good deal for a six-by-ten studio with eat-in-toilet. Fortunately, there’s a way to shiv some of those cost in the kidneys and that brings us to tonight’s word, “Debt or Prison.”
Folks, our justice system has found so many ways to cut corners. For instance, eliminating non-essentials. For example, Governors in Utah, Idaho, Texas, Indiana and Arizona have refused federal funding for the “Prison Rape Elimination Act.” That reminds me of the old joke, two prisoners were in the shower and one of them drops the soap, so the other guy says, “What’s about to happen is fiscally irresponsible to prevent.”
But the savings don’t stop at not preventing sexual assault, there’s also cheap labor. The New York Times reports the federal government is relying on tens of thousands of detained immigrants to work in detention centers cooking meals, scrubbing showers, and buffing hallways, usually for a $1.00 a day or less; some are even paid with just candy bars. Now I know, I know that sounds bad, but their next PayDay could be a “100 Grand.”
I mean think about it, it’s win-win, it’s win-win. They come to America to steal our jobs, so we arrest them and force them to do our jobs. But it’s not enough. It cannot be enough just to save money, prisons need to turn a profit and believe it or not we’re well on the way as reported by another criminal enterprise financed by taxpayers, NPR.
After a year-long investigation, NPR has found that across the country defendants can be billed for a public defender, for their own probation and parole supervision, for the electronic monitoring devices they are ordered to wear, and even charged room and board for prison stays. And the best part is, these fees are self-sustaining investments.
JOSEPH SHAPIRE: On a typical day, about 25% of those people in the county jail are there not for their misdemeanor offenses, but because they failed to pay the court fines and fees.
STEPHEN COLBERT: It’s a great system. If the defendant can’t pay a fee, they go to jail where they’ll rack up more food and boarding fees that they can’t pay and be penalized with more jail time, thus increasing their debt which gives them even longer prison sentences. You know what they say, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, or if you don’t have a dime, which is a crime resulting in more time.
And these fees are resulting in serious sentences for the poor. A judge in Georgia recently sentenced a man to 12 months in jail for failing to pay his court fees. That sounds harsh, but this guy terrorized his community by stealing a can of beer worth less than $2.00. Hey, if this guy wants to stay out of jail he should have stuck to petty crime.
Folks, I believe this is a great start. It’s a baby step. But we are missing out on all kinds of other charge-purtunities. For instance, what about women’s prisons? They should include an entertainment fee because, after all, they are watching a live presentation of Orange is the New Black. Death row inmates always request last meals, but why should they be allow to skip out on the check? And if criminals think getting tased stings, just wait till they get the electricity bill.
Now some may say that jailing people over their debts makes poverty into a crime. Well, that’s true. Maybe we should just cut out the middle man and put all poor people in jail. Of course, this will require new prison facilities, which we can build using people who can’t pay their prison fees; not as workers, as the bricks. I say we just stack them up in a cube and leave an opening so we can cram more in, then lock them up and throw away whichever prisoner is the key because the only way to cover the rising cost of prison, because, for some reason, no matter how many poor people we throw in jail, it keeps getting overcrowded.
And that’s “The Word.” We’ll be right back.