Cushier jails for the rich and grittier ones for the poor are the kind of thing you might expect in a Third World dictatorship or perhaps 18th century England, but not modern-day America, land of equal justice under the law. But the two-tiered, wealth-based system of criminal punishment is alive and well in Southern California and around the U.S., as shown by an investigation and story by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times.
Reporters found at least 26 boutique jails that cater to the incarceration needs of people who can afford to pay the hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars it takes to avoid the notorious Los Angeles County jails.
One convict described his four months in the Alhambra jail as a "retreat," at which he could bring in his own food, clothing and bedding. This kind of wealth-based separate punishment is inherently unequal.
Yet it should not really be surprising. The criminal justice system is replete with examples of how wealth and poverty make a huge difference. Numerous studies show that people with money are less likely than their poorer counterparts to be arrested for drug crimes. If they are, they are less likely to face jail time, and of course can afford the best lawyers so are more likely to be successful in fighting the charges or winning lighter sentences. And as we have seen repeatedly, unequal treatment based on wealth turn into racial disparities.
There is perhaps little that can be done, at least in the short term, about those societal inequities and their effects.
But there are stages of the system at which the power of money is so directly involved in the justice system that the status quo cannot be tolerated, even if on first blush it appears even-handed.
If everyone who commits a traffic offense is penalized by the same fines or fees, for example, isn't that the ultimate in fairness? But if those who cannot afford to pay are assessed additional fees that they also cannot afford, and are ultimately lose their licenses or even jailed for nonpayment, it is their poverty and not their offense that has lost them at least a measure of their liberty.
Two defendants arrested and sent to jail on suspicion of committing the same crime do not face equal justice if one has money for bail and can go home to a family, a house and a job, and the other loses all of those things because he had no bail money to buy his way out before trial.
If wealth also means the difference between a spartan but safe "retreat" and the dangerous Los Angeles County jail, the 21st century American system of justice is nowhere near as even-handed as we would like to believe.