Just a quick post at the end of the work week -- at her first Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing, Elizabeth Warren had a simple question: when's the last time a Wall Street banker had to face trial?
Unsurprisingly, the answer was a stammering "Um...sometime...I'm sure we've...uh...I'll have to get back to you."
While the full answer to why this happens in somewhat complex, the short answer is that we have two criminal justice systems; one for the poor, in which increasingly harsh laws are justified as the only response capable of stemming criminality, and one for the rich, in which token fines and regulatory discussions suddenly become the preferred method.
But really, the easiest way to see these two tracks in operation is to look at two crimes, both of which can have incredibly destructive effects on individuals and communities: drug use and all possible forms of crime on Wall Street (and the larger financial industry).
Drug use, the crime available to (though not at all exclusive to) the poor, generates an incredibly harsh response. In the year 2011 alone, an estimated 1, 513, 251 people were arrested for drug-related crimes. And maybe this seems appropriate to you; after all, drugs are bad and harmful and can destroy entire communities, so they need a big response.
But let's contrast that with all financial crimes. Unless you have been living in a cave on mars with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, you may recall how shady financial practices over the last few years kind of tanked the American economy (and really, most of the world economy), putting millions out of work, erasing the retirement funds of millions, and leading to all sorts of horrible problems too myriad to list here. And how many people were arrested for financial crimes in 2011? Well, it's hard to say, because the data are not kept in the same way. However, according to the FBI, there were 241 convictions and 726 potentially criminal cases pending an outcome. So, roughly 1,000 criminal cases were pursued. Expanding back a few years with the same data, the entire financial collapse of America resulted in less than 10,000 criminal cases being pursued in the financial sector (though of course pursued does not mean any criminal charges or even arrests came of it).
So by even the most generous of definitions, there were well over 151 times as many people arrested for drug charges in one year than there were cases even pursued against the financial industry over a 7 year span. And again, as bad as drug use may be, I don't recall it tanking the entire world's economy.
So why the discrepancy? Well, again, there are a fair number of factors involved, but the biggest one would be that one of these crimes is the kind that can be committed by poor people and one is the kind that can only be committed by the wealthy...