The selective enforcement and differential application of the rule of law should be carefully examined and and officially monitored at all times because individual and organized discretion by police, prosecutors, and judges has historically reproduced patterns of crime control that adversely affect the poor and marginal members of society while they positively benefit members of the middle and upper classes.
The ideal in America is that all people are subject to the same laws of justice (due process), and that all are equal before the law. The legal definition of "equality before the law" is the doctrine that all persons, regardless of wealth, social status, or the political power wielded by them, are to be treated the same. Is this a prized and lofty principle? Absolutely. Is the definition enforced? Only marginally.
In truth, here are some of the most prominent considerations that affect enforcement and application of the law:
* Legitimacy of the victim
* Local politics
* Departmental policies
* Nature of the crime
* The relationship between the victim and the offender
We, the people, live with the inherent imbalance of lawfulness. In America, money, power, and social status influence the application of the law and the measure of justice . We have endured this discordant "equality" long before we claimed liberty in 1776. Now, most of us accept our selective treatment without protest. We shrug our shoulders, grimace and declare "Oh, well" as we listen to account after account of inequality and injustice.
Often, we are unwilling or unable to expose this gross selectivity. "Fight the powers that be" is a great lyric in an Isley Brothers song; however, application of dissent against great odds most often leads to rough waters and contempt. The Old Line is entrenched and ready to bristle when challenged while even the most oppressed people scoff at those who attempt to move mountains and build new visions.
Perhaps we should consider the true moral intent of the phrase "equality before the law." The word before should not be interpreted to mean "in front of" or "in the presence of" a legal magistrate. Instead is should be understood to mean "in advance of" the application of "the law."
Everyone should be considered equal and worthy of lawfulness without any judgment, yet most people consider "equality before the law" to mean equal treatment in the "eyes" and presence of a judgmental legal system.
Doesn't the present interpretation of justice in the United States resemble an old, old concept of class and value? The personification of legal equality as the lady of justice is most likely derived from Ancient Rome. The Romans adopted Justitia as a female goddess of justice. Since Roman times, Justitia has frequently been depicted carrying scales and a sword but with her eyes uncovered.
For the Romans, it was not true that all people were created equal. Roman society, like most ancient societies, was heavily stratified. Some of the people resident in ancient Rome were slaves, who lacked any power or justice of their own. Other classes were proletariat, plebeian, and patrician with varying degrees of lawful protection. Many would say this unfair class system is analogous to 21st century America with its deprived lower class, struggling middle class, and comfortable elite.
Only since the 15th century has Lady Justice often been depicted wearing a blindfold. Of course, the blindfold represents objectivity, in that justice is, or should be, meted out objectively with impartiality. This is a fantastic, suppositious ideal in America, perhaps unattainable but always openly declared to be true. Perhaps the good-intentioned blindfold over the eyes of Lady Justice is actually transparent.
When dealing with an individual, what does enforcement and the legal system "peek" under the blindfold of justice to seek?
1. Is the person legitimate?
In other words, is that person "worthy" of equal protection? Our present system makes some very unfair judgments on legitimacy. The middle and upper class are deemed "legit" while the less fortunate are seen by many as unfortunate "baggage" and contemptible inhabitants.
Mentally handicapped, economically challenged, mentally challenged, or physically impaired. The homeless, the poor, the eccentric, homosexuals, prostitutes, juveniles, or unborn babies. All people deserve impartial equality in dealings with the law. The same strong protection and unswerving care should be given by all civil servants to all Americans. Yet, we know this does not happen.
2. Does the person "rock the boat" of local politics?
An unpopular political stance is likely to meet with harsh treatment. Face it: the law in states, in counties, in cities, and in towns is directly influenced by the politicians that be. Politics trickle down to the boots of enforcement and judgment. These people then become detestable political cronies. Since the lower class does not effectively "speak" politics or carry any true weight in its design, they are considered, at most, bleating sheep in such matters.
Though effective enforcement and application should always be apolitical, it is not. Local politics are responsible for putting local law and legal personnel in office, and people remain obliged to the power of politics -- so much so that corruption and inequality is inevitable. These politics should be consistently investigated and effectively eliminated when discovered.
3. Does the person "fit" departmental policies?
"This is the way we do things around here, son. We've always done them this way, and we aren't going to change things for some fancy-thinking person like you." Does this sound familiar concerning dealings involving effecting needed change and progressive movement?
"Departmental policies" should be established with good reason and consistently reviewed to avoid becoming dated. Without reason and review, they can become stale, ineffective, and biased. Sometimes those in power resist change or exception to policy merely because they wish to maintain full control over those less fortunate. And, sometimes, these people in control are terribly prejudiced and evil. If someone is judged a less-than-perfect "fit," that person is sure to be ridiculed and perhaps denied his/her rights.
4. Did the person commit a crime with a "nature" deemed morally reprehensible?
Once labeled as an offender who has committed an offense commonly held as particularly "unnatural," that person has little chance to serve a sentence, then go back to society and be considered an "equal" member once more. Unless, of course, that is unless the person has significant celebrity, money, power, or a combination of all three.
While it is true that many criminals do commit reprehensible, ugly acts, and deserve harsh judgment and extended sentences or even life in prison, the vast majority deserve a second chance.
Yet, how does anyone pay a debt to society, come out of jail or prison with a record, and then find meaningful employment and impartiality from an unforgiving public? The Scarlet Letter that remains signifies that an ex-con is forever "Horrible." It also signifies that the ex-con is a lifelong second-class citizen, a loser in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of the law.
How close have we all come to being one of the people sporting such an "H" on our sleeves? Need we all say, "But for the grace of God..."?
5. Does the relationship between the "victim" and the "offender" fit accepted standards?
Some people are victimized by offenders who sit in positions of legal power. These insider abusers may be officers, lawyers, or judges. They intimidate and control those who do petty crimes and even major crimes. They love the role of "puppet master." These fiends use their position to private advantage as they "play" their underlings while attempting to maintain a clean public persona.
The enforcement puppeteers enjoy their tenure and their dominance as they ally and unite offenders to their suiting. The rich in money and image who align themselves with the "legal" will not be charged with any offense that belittles their masters or themselves. Most likely, any crime these protected citizens commit will go unpublicized. They have the proverbial "Lifetime Pass."
We are not all subject to the same laws of justice (due process), and we are not all equal before the law. At the risk of sounding like a complainer or a conspiracy theory nut, I uphold the belief that the poor, the disadvantaged, the once-labeled "Sinful," the distinctly "different," and the unpopular have a right to complain about discrimination before the law.
OK, OK... I understand the slim chance of reforming a dark system. I am a realist... honestly. Still, I am adamant about the need for transparency in legal doings and exposure of wrongdoings done in the name of the law. I believe we can make a significant difference by fighting the "good fight" against the overwhelming odds even though we may seem to most to be Don Quixote's jousting with windmills.
I would much rather be taken as a fool operating under a fantasy than as a lying, power-hungry enforcer of injustice. Don't get me wrong, I love good politicians, good judges, good lawyers, and good cops. At the same time, I know some legal authorities deal in dirt. In soiling their own hands, they also blacken the reputations of their innocent peers, and they blacken the hearts of those they are sworn to serve and protect.
“We first crush people to the earth, and then claim the right
of trampling on them forever, because they are prostrate."
--Lydia Maria Francis Child, American abolitionist
and women's rights activist