Indictment of Former Michigan State Officials Further Exposes Discrepancies in the Criminal Justice System Between the Rich and Poor (EDITORIAL)
February 4, 2021
Six-year old Jaylon Wakes went from an involved school student to a hysterical one the following school year. It was then announced in 2015 that his neighborhood drinking and bathing water which he had been using for more than one year, in Flint, Michigan, “was saturated with lead, at some of the highest levels in the city,” as The New York Times states.
However, the neurological and behavioral problems were already affecting Wakes as he received 30 suspensions and “70 unexcused absences” throughout his time in two separate schools. Yet, Wakes is not the sole child who continues to feel the effects of the lead-contaminated water — as a result of officials switching the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint Water because it would reduce the cost for the city by millions of dollars. About 30,000 school children were exposed to neurotoxins in the lead-contaminated water which is shown to have resulted in brain and nervous system damage. For example, the demand for special need education began to increase in 2015 in Flint.
Six years after Flint’s drinking water became contaminated, Michigan’s former governor Rick Snyder and eight other ex-officials are facing charges for their role in the scandal. Meanwhile, some residents still don't have clean water. https://t.co/ShHnCSHINJ
— grist (@grist) January 27, 2021
After the development of the Neurodevelopment Center for Excellence because of the class-action lawsuit filed “demanding [for] more resources for Flint’s children,” it was found that — “About 70 percent of the students evaluated have required school accommodations for issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as A.D.H.D.; dyslexia; or mild intellectual impairment.”
And six years after the fatal Flint Water Crisis — which PBS Frontline found was more than the 12 dead Michigan state officials reported, but as many as 115 died from Legionnaires’ disease which is caused by waterborne bacteria — “Nine former Michigan officials, including the ex-Gov. Rick Snyder, were charged Thursday [Jan. 14, 2021] in connection with the Flint water crisis,” according to NBC News.
Under direction of Snyder, the other eight former officials were involved in changing the water supply, in 2014, to the Flint River — thus exposing its population to high levels of lead in their water supply.
“At this very moment the people of Flint continue to suffer from the categorical failure of public officials at all levels of government who trampled upon their trust and evaded accountability for far too long,” said the Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud.
On Thursday, Snyder also pleaded not guilty to “two counts of willful neglect” of duty that could each result in a maximum jail sentence of one year and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Snyder’s lawyer described the case as “flimsy” and a “waste [of] additional taxpayer dollars.”
Other charges against the state officials involved range from involuntary manslaughter, perjury, misconduct in office, obstruction of justice and extortion, to willful neglect of duty.
Mission and Ministry Director and Moderator of Social Justice Club Kimberly Wiley said, “It is very frustrating when you see elected or public officials not upholding the responsibilities of their office. We assume they have the best interests of the public, which is what they are supposed to do, but in reality, their decisions are many times led by greed and lack of accountability on each level. When bad things happen, it is hard for a person to accept responsibility. If you have a corrupt system, where does it start, and who is ultimately responsible? If a person at the water treatment facility knew something was wrong but did nothing about it, is the governor to blame? If each level knew something was wrong and it is brought to the governor’s attention and he still does nothing, then yes, he is to blame. If people in each level knew something was wrong and told their supervisors, the supervisors are to blame. Again, money is usually at the root of the problem. This is why court rulings take so much time. It is the tearing away of layers to see who knew and who didn’t take action. Meanwhile, it is the regular person suffering the damages. While this is being fought, nothing is happening to fix the situation. Problems don’t get fixed if the people in a position to help aren’t directly affected by the problem.”
However, Flint City Councilman Herbert Winfrey described the charges against Snyder as a “slap on the wrist,” which begs the question — why do the wealthy and powerful obtain less punishments for their actions, if any at all, and often years after they occur, as in the case of Snyder who was indirectly responsible for not only deaths but health problems in children and adults that continue to be felt today?
Yet, to begin, this is not the first instance in which a highly influential, wealthy person has “gotten away with murder.”
On July 18, 1969, Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy drove his car “off the Dike Bridge on the tiny island of Chappaquiddick,” near Martha’s Vineyard, according to History.com. Although he survived the crash, his passenger — Mary Jo Kopechne — died. Kennedy alleged he dove several times in search of Kopechne before leaving to go to his cottage to bring his cousin Joseph Gargan and aid Paul Markham to the crash site in order to help in the search for Kopechne. However, they failed to reach her, but rather than report the crash, Kennedy left the scene and returned to his hotel; Kopechne’s body was not found until the following morning.
As a result, Kennedy was not charged him with “involuntary manslaughter” because he did not contact the police until 10 a.m. on July 19 — after the body was recovered — so they could not prove he did anything illegal as they were unable to test his blood alcohol level after the crash occurred and did not find any illegal activity. Although Kennedy was found guilty of leaving the scene of the crash, he was suspended of his two-month jail sentence (which was the minimum sentence for that crime) by Judge James Boyle and was solely temporarily banned from driving.
Wiley said, “We have seen in the past, that people with wealth and social standing, often fair better in sentencing.”
In addition, to salvage Kennedy’s political career, his political team “worked to obscure the facts of the tragic incident from the public,” which worked as he remained in the Senate “until his death in 2009.”
And yet questions still remain regarding the incident such as whether or not Kennedy was driving drunk, what caused him to drive off the bridge, the reasoning behind his delayed reporting of the event, and more.
Similar, more recent, cases of white-collar crimes, a term the sociologist Edwin Sutherland first coined in 1939 (that describes a crime perpetrated by “a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation”), further expose the discrepancies in the justice system between the affluent and poor. The author of “Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime,” Jennifer Taub, suggests that judges themselves, who hold white-collar jobs, may identify with the “white-collar defendants.”
For example, Former President Donald Trump’s lawyer Micheal Cohen was convicted of “campaign finance violations and lying to Congress” and sentenced to three years in prison, but due to concerns of contracting COVID-19, he was permitted to serve his sentence at home. However, he was seen eating dinner at Le Bilboquet on the evening of July 2, 2020. Paul Manafort, another of Trump’s former political aids, could have served 19 to 24 years in prison for one charge against him, instead of his four-year sentence for that charge and additional three-and-a-half for his other charge, but the judge favored the lower sentence as a result of his “otherwise blameless life;” he, like Choen, was also allowed to serve the rest of his sentence at home due to COVID-19 concerns.
And additional example is that of Broker Deborah Kelly “who admitted to paying more than $100,000 in bribes to a portfolio manager with New York’s giant state pension fund and then lying about it,” but as a result of the judge deeming her a “good person,” she was sentenced to home confinement and probation — rather than five years in prison.
Taub attributes this partly as a result of some judges believing a white-collar criminal’s “fall from grace” as punishment enough. However, the cause runs deeper than this.
AP Psychology Teacher Dana Nazaretian said, “Mostly what we see in the criminal justice system is those with great financial resources have the ability to afford expensive legal representation. This typically results in more favorable decisions for the wealthy defendant. There may also be a component of in-group bias – favoring of our own group – which may also play into some of these decisions.”
Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Hugo Black said, “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.”
When someone is arrested, and allowed bail, if they are unable to afford bail, they must remain in jail between the time of their arrest and trial whereas those who can afford it are able to return home and assist their attorney in their defense argument. In addition, an attorney available to those without funds is limited in their ability to gather the necessary resources and evidence such as subpoenas to call on witnesses as they must submit an affidavit explaining their need for the witness. If the affidavit is approved, however, they must disclose their case as a “price.” On the other hand, according to Federal laws, an individual with the means simply pays a fee to obtain the necessary subpoena.
President of the Student Council Chandler McKnight said, “I think it is a problem in our society that stems from financial inequalities and racial stigmas. The poor in our community don’t have the means to hire an adequate attorney, as the rich do. This puts them at an additional disadvantage in court. I heard a news story about how an African-American mother who lied about her address so that her children could attend a better school. She landed 4 years in prison. This was around the same time as the Lori Loughlin case, and she landed minimal jail time in a white-collar prison. I think this demonstrates the biases of our justice system.”
ResearchGate interviewed the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project (which researchers problems with trends in the U.S. criminal justice system), Marc Mauer, who identified that poorer, more diverse, communities are at more of a disadvantage than more affluent defendants. He said, “Skewed policing practices contribute to disproportionate incarceration of low-income people of color, particularly for drug offenses. While people of different racial/ethnic groups use and sell drugs at roughly similar rates, drug law enforcement is more heavily focused on communities of color, leading to higher rates of incarceration.”
Yet, Mauer also states that these discrepancies in the criminal justice system are not as a result of white-collar criminals exploiting the system, but simply that their affluence allows them to take advantage of the rights given to citizens under the law. As a result of their ability to “to post bail, to hire capable defense counsel, to present a plan for alternative sentencing” and more is what leads to this gap.
As a result of a culmination of these findings, both sympathy for white-collar criminals and availability of resources causes the affluent and influential to get lesser sentencing, whereas the poor are not granted this — which begs the question: are the poor and marginalized truly given equal protection under the law? And until there is substantial criminal justice reform, we may never be able to answer in the affirmative.
While a senior at Academy, Samantha Cuttle (’20) did her AP Government and Politics Cast Fire project on the Criminal Justice system. She is also currently majoring in Psychology and Social Welfare at Florida State University. Cuttle said, “One of the biggest things I learned while doing my Cast Fire project last year was how many factors play into the criminal justice system. It’s hard to choose one or two things that need to be changed because, really, the entire system is flawed. However, in terms of assisting discrepancies between the rich and poor, I think one of the biggest things that needs to be done is expanding mental health resources in vulnerable minority communities. I do not think people realize how large of a disparity there is of mental illness between the wealthy and poorer communities. A large portion of the population that you see in jails, are composed of individuals who struggle with mental health problems/illness who come from communities that simply do not have the resources to help these people — especially when comparing it to more wealthy communities who have bigger budgets, less police patrolling, and other resources to prevent these problems. So to summarize, I think mental health resources both inside and outside of incarceration needs to be implemented.”