I'm not sure if Glenn Greenwald set out to pen a downer of a book about the state of the legal system in America. Unfortunately his latest work, "With Liberty and Justice for Some," is more than a little depressing. "The United States now imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the world, both per capita and in absolute terms. The numbers are staggering. The United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, yet nearly 25 percent of all prisoners in the world are on American soil."
In the realm of modern legal writing, few authors have been more articulate or relentless in chronicling the inequities of the American justice system than Greenwald. A former litigator specializing in constitutional law and civil rights cases, Greenwald's legal bona fides are unassailable. Add in years of experience as an observer and columnist for Salon.com, and you have an author who knows what he's talking about.
"Justice" is a continuation of his ongoing effort to raise American consciousness both about the history of jurisprudence in this country and the direction in which it is headed. Like all honest observers, Greenwald makes no bones about his biases. "The rich enjoy superior legal representation and therefore much better prospects for success in court than the poor. The powerful are treated with far more deference by judges than the powerless. The same cultural, socioeconomic and demographic biases that plague society generally also infect the legal process."
That the rich and powerful are able to afford better lawyers than the poor is no secret. The main point that Greenwald tries to hammer home, however, is the insidious way the wealthy and powerful have adulterated and polluted the legal system and how our views of fairness and justice have become fundamentally changed because of it: "The issue isn't just that those with political influence and financial power have some advantages in our judicial system. It is much worse than that. Those with political and financial clout are routinely allowed to break the law with no legal repercussions whatsoever." In other words, not only do the rich get special treatment in the courtroom nowadays, but most of the time, they never even see a courtroom, even when they get caught.
The book presents copious examples of this trend. From corporations that defraud the government out of billions in taxpayer bailouts, to presidents who openly commit egregious acts that they themselves admit are illegal, these days the rich and powerful have learned a lesson: They can commit even heinous crimes with impunity, and no one will bat an eye. The most upsetting examples of this phenomenon reside in the area of politics. From Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon after the Watergate fiasco to President Obama's refusal to even investigate members of the Bush administration for acts ranging from illegal wiretapping to torture, the "political class" has completely redefined what is considered legal based on the status of the person involved.
As unfair as this trend is, this doesn't get at the true horror of "Justice." For while the elite class has been rigging the legal system in its favor, it has been upping the ante for the rest of us. Laws that apply largely to the poor and powerless have been strengthened and punishments increased. The net result of this trend, according to Greenwald, is a two-tiered system of justice in which those in the upper echelons of political and financial power are virtually immune from prosecution, while the poor and powerless are imprisoned with alacrity. "The criminal justice system is now almost exclusively reserved for ordinary Americans, who are routinely subjected to harsh punishments even for the pettiest of offenses."
The statistics are truly alarming. "According to Justice Department statistics, at the end of 2008 more than 7.3 million people -- one in every thirty-one U.S. adults -- was on probation, in jail or prison or on parole. And that's not even counting the nation's 4.3 million ex-convicts who have fulfilled their parole obligations."
"Justice" is an eloquent, well-researched book filled with passionate and compelling arguments. It is well worth reading. The only issue I have with the book is that, from a reader's standpoint, Greenwald doesn't present any realistic strategies for change or provide any hope that things will get better anytime soon. If anything, his answer to "Yes We Can" is a resolute "fuggedaboutit": "The [dystopic] future toward which the United States is inexorably heading is not difficult to imagine. At some point, serious social unrest is the inevitable result when ... ordinary people are threatened with imprisonment for petty offenses while they see elites illegally spying, invading, torturing, and plundering with nearly total impunity. Such a two-tiered setup is simply unsustainable."
For those revolutionaries who are ready to don their black bandannas and man the barricades, "Justice" will provide much in the way of rhetorical ammunition. For the rest of us, however, before cracking this book, you might be wise to lay in a supply of Xanax.