Peaking Behind the Media’s "Paris Hilton "Curtain

I’ve refrained from talking about the Paris Hilton saga mainly because it distracts from discussions about the real problems that exist in our criminal justice system, i.e. that the poor often do not receive adequate representation with the result being disproportionate sentences and even innocent people being sent to jail regularly. The Innocence Project has been using DNA evidence to free hundreds of the wrongly convicted. Innocent people convicted on circumstantial or negligible evidence will serve their sentences as virtually all post-conviction resources are directed to death penalty cases.

I was wrong in ignoring this story because, with the public attention surrounding it, it provides a good vehicle for raising the issues I point out above.

Many of the problems with our criminal justice system are the result of public misperception. That’s why I want to applaud the LA Times for its story pointing out what virtually every judge and lawyer in the country already knows — Paris Hilton will serve more time than the average person would for the same offense. The article notes thata fter 4 days Hilton served more time than 60% of those who committed the same offense and that, after 23 days, she will have served more time than 80% of those who committed the same offense. I am willing to bet that the 20% who serve longer than 23 days have aggravating circumstances that are not present in Paris’ case; that is unless you consider being a spoiled brat a punishable, aggravating circumstance. Further, the story notes: “[Hilton] is believed to be the first inmate in years who actually was sent back to jail to serve more of her term.” In other words, Paris Hilton is being singled out because of the publicity of her case and is not, as the media created myth has it, being treated just like everyone else.

The injustice to Paris, who after all is undeniably guilty, is slight in my mind compared to the ten year sentence (with two already served) given to Genarlow Wilson for doing what probably half off all Americans have done or to the eleven innocent men who served years in prison as the result of an ultra-aggressive prosecutor from Dallas, Texas, before being cleared by DNA evidence (why isn’t the right going after this prosecutor given the zeal they have for going after Mike Nifong for his decision to charge the Duke Lacrossers?)

However, it doesn’t take much to know that this story has more angles than the spoiled rich kid who has to serve time for her crime. There is the posturing of Los Angeles Democratic District Attorney who is playing this for political publicity while masking the true problems LA has with prison overcrowding. There is the Judge who certainly knows he is abandoning the normal course because he is either too cowardly to admit publicly what normally occurs with such cases or is intentionally grandstanding to portray himself as a tough law and order judge, probably a bit of both. There are the sadists in the media who love getting pictures of of people dragged about in handcuffs and thrown into jail so that they can whip up ratings or newspaper sales.

California, and virtually every other state, have a problem. The public wants jail or prison sentences imposed on other people for virtually every crime, but doesn’t want to pay for the jails or prisons necessary for all these folks. Someone should have the courage to raise these issues honestly with the public.

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