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You Have the Right to Remain Silent: The United Police States of America

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By Dave Lindorff

Willie James Sauls: 45 years for a purse snatching by ThisCantBeHappening

Willie James Sauls is unlikely to see the outside of a prison. Last fall a court in the state of Texas sentenced this 37-year-old man to 45 years in jail. His crime: he snatched the purse from an old woman. 

In Norway, meanwhile, a court sentenced Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing racist who slaughtered 77 people, mostly teenagers, and injured several hundred, to 21 years in prison, with an option for that detention to be extended by five-year increments if he is determined to be still dangerous. Otherwise, the 32-year-old, if considered rehabilitated, could be released at the age of 53.

In the 1970s and "80s, Germany was rocked by killings committed by a radical left group called the Red Army Faction. Its members killed over 30 people, including prosecutors and industrialists. Eventually its leaders were caught and convicted, but by 2007, almost a decade after the Red Army Faction had announced its own dissolution, those still in prison were pardoned by the country's president. 

It is beyond inconceivable to imagine a US president, governor or even a judge, releasing a prisoner from a US jail who had committed the kind of offenses committed by either Breivik or members of Germany's Red Army Faction.  It is, in fact, hard to imagine any political leader in the US pardoning purse-snatcher Willie James.

This is, after all, a country that hounded a 26-year-old internet activist, Aaron Swartz, into committing suicide, after a federal prosecutor threatened him with 35 years in jail -- this for the heinous crime of copyright violation (in a protest action he had publicly hacked an MIT server and downloaded hundreds of academic papers which a private contractor wanted to charge for!).

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Right-wing Americans love to call the US a "nanny state," claiming that the federal government is always trying to pass laws regulating people's lives. What the US really is, though, is a "puni-state" -- a nation that thrives on vengeance and retribution, and that rejects the whole notion of rehabilitation or character change.

How else to explain the prosecutorial passion for charging absurdly youthful offenders as adults?

In 2011, a Pennsylvania judge agreed with a prosecutor's request to try Jordan Brown, an 11-year old boy, as an adult, because ahead of the trial, he "refused to admit his guilt" in the shooting death of his father's pregnant fiancee. While Brown became the youngest kid in the world to be facing a potential sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, he would not be unusual in the state of Pennsylvania, which leads the US -- itself a country that leads the world in such prosecutions of children as adults -- in having an astonishing 450 people serving life terms in prison with no opportunity for parole who were sentenced as adults for acts they committed as children.

Say what?

One of the fundamental realities about children is that they grow up, and generally, if given a modicum of love and attention, they grow up to be more mature than they were as kids. 

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That doesn't compute in the US, where what you did is all that matters to the average citizen, apparently. Some 40 of the 50 states allow children to be tried as adults in the United States, making it a pariah among nations in its brutishnish and barbarism.

Politicians -- Democrat and Republican -- campaign on "get-tough-on-crime platforms which have also made the US the most locked-up society in the world, outstripping even police states like China, which despite being almost four times the population of the US, has fewer people behind bars.

In the US, 2.3 million people are in prison, but another 4.9 million are out of jail but still on parole or probation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, meaning they've been in prison already, and are still under the control of prison and police authorities. That's over 3 percent of the US population, counting kids and old people. We lock people up at six times the rate, relative to population, of the average for all industrialized nations. Our lock-up rate is five times Britain's, nine times Germany's and 12 times Japan's, yet we have crime rates far in excess of those more enlightened countries.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of the collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper He is a columnist for Counterpunch, is author of several recent books ("This Can't Be Happening! Resisting the (more...)

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