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Locked Up

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Shame On US: 127,000 In Prison For Life


By James Donahue


Those ugly "made-up" wars on drugs and against terror are taking an appalling toll on American citizens. A recent count shows 127,000 people now sentenced to live the rest of their natural lives behind bars.


These are among a total prison population of 1,460,920 inmates at state and federal prisons by mid-year 2003.


In addition to this, local jails were holding 762,672 additional prisoners wither awaiting trials or serving sentences by local courts.


According to the Bureau of Justice, 71 persons in 13 states were executed in 2002. Of these, 33 of them were put to death in Texas, the home state of President George W. Bush. Seven were executed in Oklahoma, six in Missouri, four each in Georgia and Virginia, three each in Florida, South Carolina and Ohio, two each in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina, and one each in Louisiana and California.


At the end of 2002, 37 states and the federal prison system still held 3,557 more prisoners sentenced to die. All were convicted of murder.


The bureau figures state that 6.7 million people were either behind bars, on parole or on probation by the end of that year. If these figures still hold true, it means that one out of every 32 adults is being controlled by local, state or federal courts.


These statistics do not include the multitudes of traffic offenses, shop lifting cases and other misdemeanor charges brought against citizens. I suspect that if we throw these numbers into the mill, most people in the country are touched in some way by police, the courts and the law sometime during their lifetime.


Anyone who has ever gone through the agony of standing before a judge on even a speeding ticket or misdemeanor charge has a keen understanding of the severity of the American court system. Since 911 and the introduction of the Patriot Acts I and II, the old concepts of innocence until proven guilty, and due process have been all but lost in our court systems.


It has been my observation as a working court reporter that those with the means of hiring high-priced, smooth-talking, theatrical performers for lawyers have the best chance of convincing a jury of their innocence. The poor must ride the system which usually means accepting a plea bargain between court-appointed lawyers and prosecutors, and then bearing the wrath of a corrupt court.


The courts, the lawyers and the police have all been corrupted by greed. They are a collective system of capture, hold and punish in a way that pays handsomely for their existence. Thus small-town judges that are drawing salaries of $100,000 to $200,000 a year, work with prosecutors receiving up to $80,000 to $100,000, and police officers receiving from $30,000 to $40,000 a year to feather their own nests.


There is an attitude among members of the law enforcement community that the arrested person is guilty until proven innocent. They are treated like criminals, manacled at the time of the arrest, confined to crude jail cells, and paraded before judges, lawyers and onlookers during court appearances wearing gaudy orange colored prison garb. It is all designed to humiliate and embarrass the accused to a point where he/she will do anything to escape torment; even going to the point of accepting a plea agreement. It does not matter if they may be innocent of any wrongdoing. Everybody gets treated the same. Like dogs.


Knowing how the system works, I believe many innocent people are locked behind bars, many of them facing a lifetime of confinement and some looking at capital punishment for crimes not committed. I recently watched a judge sentence a man with a good job, a wife and children to prison because he went hunting with friends. It seems that ten years earlier this man was convicted on a plea agreement on a felony charge and his sentence included a lifetime without owning and/or using firearms. He was caught when the car he was riding in had a flat tire and a police officer stopped to run a check on the vehicle's occupants. His shotgun was in the car.


The harsh new laws, many of them stemming from "get though on crime" campaigns, have had their effect on the prison system. The number of prisoners facing life sentences has doubled since 1992, and reached four times the level a decade prior to that, statistics show.


Ironically, the statistics also show that levels of violent crimes have dropped by a third in the last decade. But supporters of tough sentencing laws claim this is proof that prison works.


A report by a group called the Sentencing Project notes that the politicians are ignoring real crime trends and have stripped important discretionary powers from the judges. The report notes Californias "three strikes and you're out" law as among the reasons for the jump in life sentences. Other states also have adopted similar sentencing guidelines.


Under the three-strikes law, a third felony conviction, no matter how minor, can mean life in prison.


In six states, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, a life sentence means just what it says. Felons go to prison and stay there until they die. There is no hope of parole.



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