White Privilege, Wealth and the U.S. Criminal Justice System
By David J. Leonard
I can still see myself standing in my office. I was gathering my things as I prepared to go on leave with the birth of my son that following day. Although my excitement and anxiety provided a joyous distraction, my focus was elsewhere. My father was in New York, awaiting the verdict in his trial. We were all waiting for the verdict yet he was probably waiting for judgment about his future. Having lived under the stress and anxiety of my father facing jail time for many years (including two prior trials that had ended with hung juries) and having lived under the continual fear that our collective lives could forever change in an instant, I sat almost paralyzed by my trepidation. I couldn’t help but think about a recent conversation with my father, where he asked me to help out my Mom if he was hauled off to jail without being able to tie up loose ends. Deep in these thoughts and unable to focus on anything, my phone rang. He had been found guilty on all counts and was convinced that he had not only been “screwed” but that his life was over.
While an injustice did take place, his life was not over. We have made it though these circumstances because of family, love, and privilege. Yes, privilege. My experience with an injustice, with a prosecutor who was more focused on creating a factual scenario that fit his preconceived conclusions, with a criminal justice system more focused on wins than truth or justice, with a bureaucracy focused on justifying its bloated budgets and state power than fostering peace and safety, and individuals more concerned with personal interests than the families and communities that their actions impacted, taught me about the power of privilege.
My dad had the financial privilege to be able to hire a top-notch lawyer; he had a house that could be used to offset the costs of a trial. Unlike the vast majority of people swept up by an unforgiving criminal justice system, he was able to go to trial (multiple times as it turned out). While he was not ultimately successful in blunting the power of the government (more than 90% of prosecutions by the federal government result in convictions), his lawyer’s efforts to highlight the injustice that was being done, surely played a role in keeping him out of prison. While clearly an injustice, the real-life meaning of whiteness, of class privilege, is hard to deny when thinking about our entire experiences with the criminal justice system.
Yes, my family faced what we knew was an injustice. Yet, as a middle-class white family from Los Angeles, we learned that we were (to a degree) exempt from many of the injustices that befall those who must fight the system without the benefits and privileges of being white and middle class. My father was able to contest a matter three thousand miles from his home. How many individuals can carry on a fight over many years at that kind of distance including numerous cross-country flights, weeks of living in a hotel, the cost of transporting witnesses across country and related financial burdens? Anyone without the financial resources to fight would have no choice but to simply concede defeat at the outset.
My father was able to hire an attorney. Access to a private attorney as opposed to a public defender or assigned counsel is in many ways determinative of one’s fate. According to Paul Rubin and Joanna Shepherd, economic professors at Emory University, and Morris B. Hoffman, a trial judge, “the average sentence with serious cases was almost three years longer than the average for clients of private attorneys.” The mere fact that 90-95% of criminal cases never go to trial, whereas my father was able to standup before the world and announce his innocence, is evidence of both our privileges and the injustice of the criminal justice system.