It’s not exactly breaking news that the American criminal justice system is wildly unfair. The war on drugs sends thousands of black and Hispanic kids to prison for using the same illegal substances that their white peers can more often get away with smoking or snorting; meanwhile, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis get off with zero punishment and huge bonuses. These gross disparities in how the rich and poor are treated by the police and courts are the subject of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book illustrated by VICE columnist Molly Crabapple and written by Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone investigative journalist who has made a career of lampooning our entitled upper class (and just left that magazine to start a new website about political corruption).
I called Taibbi to chat about how America got to this terrible, dystopian place and where we should go from here.
VICE: The core theme of the book is that we’ve seen two parallel, and very different, systems of criminal justice emerge in this country—one for the wealthy and powerful, another for the poor and brown. That concept in and of itself might not totally shock people, but the timeframe—just how novel that phenomenon is in our democracy—should, right?
Matt Taibbi: Obviously it’s not a new story that the rich get off and poor people get screwed. I think that’s a narrative that probably couldn’t be more obvious, but there are some new developments that have made this situation worse. There are these parallel policy and political developments that happened in the early 90s that mirrored each other, with the Democrats coming over on the issue of welfare reform and also deciding to follow the Republicans in terms of courting money from the financial services and hopping on board with deregulation. I think what both of those decisions meant was that, basically, poor people no longer had a lobby in Washington consistently, and the very wealthy now had a consensus behind them. So we started to have this phenomenon of much more aggressive law enforcement against the poor. On the other side, it begins with deregulation of white-collar commerce, and then it kind of ends in non-enforcement of white-collar crime. That also seems to be a political consensus. It’s not just the same old story that has gone back to the beginning of time… This is also a new political development that has to do with the alignment of the two political parties in this country and how they’ve changed recently.
Broadly speaking, how does the justice system treat you when you don’t have money?
You get the individual attention of a human being in the criminal justice system if you’re a person of means, whereas if you’re a nobody you fall into this machine. It’s very merciless, as I tried to document in the book—once you get put into this meat grinder, it’s very very difficult to get somebody to listen to you and to your individual story, whatever it may be, while if you’re a person on the other side, you get to pay a phalanx of lawyers to have a sit-down with people at the highest levels of the criminal justice system and make a personal plea, and they may very well listen to you. That’s the difference: a machine for the people at the bottom and a human being for the person at the top.
Is it fair to say we’ve criminalized poverty in this country?
It’s fair to say in a sense. It’s not illegal per se to just have no money. But the problem with being broke or being broke and being undocumented is it puts you in a situation where any false move will result in a negative consequence, whereas if you’re working at JPMorgan Chase, there almost can’t be an individual consequence for you anymore, no matter what you do [in the course of doing your job]. Your company may end up paying the fine, but you won’t personally pay at all. In a way, we’ve made it incredibly easy for people to become criminals when they’re in that situation.
Are judges basically just tax collectors now, appropriating wealth from the poor?
There is actually a bizarre financial motive that drives a lot of this behavior. There are all sorts of little and not-so-little financial unfairnesses that are built into the system. One that drove me nuts was this idea that whenever you get arrested, you have to have a DNA test done and you have to pay for that. You have to pay for your own lab test, your own disenfranchisement. There are other little things, like the fact that when you are at Chase or HSBC and get fined a gazillion dollars, you can write that off as a deduction, whereas if you get a speeding ticket or you have to pay for your DNA test or pay a $250 processing fine for a prostitution conviction, you can’t write that off. We’re almost subsidizing white-collar crime at the top, whereas at the bottom there are all these ways we’re squeezing people who don’t have money anyway. There’s this really awkward comic element to the whole thing, where if you’re sitting and watching this over and over again, it does start to become funny and upsetting at the same time.
Why is it so hard for some poor people to get out of a cycle of prison and recidivism?
Once you’re in it, all sorts of things happen. If you have a conviction, first of all that will bar you from being able to get a whole range of professional licenses. In New York, if you have a certain kind of criminal conviction, you can’t even work in a pet cemetery. There’s hundreds of things you can’t do anymore if you have a criminal conviction; it might mean being evicted from your home if you have Section 8 housing. It’s already hard to get ahead—if you’re trying to do it in the context of working in fast-food restaurants, you’re tired, you’re raising kids, you have a couple hours a day to sleep or relax. If you start adding complications, if you can’t get 200 different professional licenses, you can’t drive a car, you can’t get public assistance, you can’t get credit [because of a criminal record], you start adding all those things up, then it becomes impossible.
If we ended the war on drugs—decriminalized or even legalized all drugs tomorrow—would the prison population be immediately reduced? Or are there other structural problems and incentives that keep our incarceration rate high?
It’s obviously sort of a huge unwritten subtext through the whole book. One of the things that I talk about in the introduction was this thing I’d seen in Russia where a certain thing was against the law, but some people could get arrested for it and other people couldn’t. Everybody in Soviet Russia had [American] dollars, but only some people would get busted for that. Our version of that is the drug laws. Everybody in America does drugs. If you threw a net over Lower Manhattan on a Friday night or Saturday night, half the people you picked up would have some kind of illegal drug on them, whether it’s Vicodin or ecstasy or coke. But we selectively enforce the drug laws, and we use extreme aggression in some areas when we enforce them. We do things like seize all your property, whereas on the flip side, if you look at HSBC [a bank that profited from drug trafficking], they literally could have taken all the assets of that company if they had wanted to, because that was a drug case. Instead they negotiated this settlement. So the war on drugs is the place where we get to selectively prosecute people. It’s our excuse for going after one population and not another. If we got rid of it, I think things would improve, but I also think something else would substitute for that.
You suggest more than once that the Bush administration, including its Department of Justice, was much tougher on financial crime than the Obama White House. How much of the blame for that can we lay on Attorney General Eric Holder and how much can be attributed to Obama and his prerogatives?
I never buy the excuse that the president has been misinformed or the president has been duped by his advisers. We’ve heard that excuse in other arenas: the national-security arena, the civil-rights arena, the whole question of rendition and torture and drone assassinations. We hear people saying, “Oh, if only Obama knew!” This is funny for me, because in Russia they have this saying: “If only the czar knew!” That existed for centuries—people had this implicit belief that the czar was a good man and it was just the people around him doing all these terrible things at the local level. That speaks to the desire of people to want to believe in the goodness of their leaders. I voted for Obama; I spent time around him on the campaign trail. I like him personally, you know, from a distance, just as a person. And he’s smart. But there’s just no way around it—on this issue he hasn’t been good. And it’s hard to make any other argument that he’s not responsible for a lot of this. I wish there was a way to make that argument.
You refer in the book to a sort of new model of citizenship, even a new, twisted concept of civil rights. What do you mean by that?
The idea of being a citizen or being a part of a nation-state is sort of disappearing for a certain class of people. They kind of live in this stateless archipelago. They’re essentially untouchable personally; they receive the benefits of living in whatever country they’re in, but they don’t have to make any of the sacrifices that you would normally make as a citizen. This begins with paying less in taxes than the rest of us do, and now it’s extended to not having to be responsible for crimes you commit in those territories. That’s the subtext of this whole thing—a collapse in patriotism among this class of people, because you wouldn’t have all this totally socially nonproductive activity, like selling worthless mortgages to old people, if any of these people had a conscience or felt any burden of citizenship. They don’t feel like they owe us anything.
Is there a way out of this mess?
I have to work at the optimism thing. But I do think one more disaster would make it almost inevitable that we took serious steps down the road to cleaning up at least the white-collar side. The other side of it, the jailing of millions of poor and non-white people, I’m a little bit more worried about. There’s almost an unstoppable political imperative that drives that—politicians who advocate for being tough on people from bad neighborhoods or from poor neighborhoods, they almost always do well when they [speak about] those themes. Voters respond to those themes. So even if stop-and-frisk is overturned by a judge, some politician will find a way to replace it with some other policy that will allow them to circumvent probable cause and whatever else. I worry about that. I think the big prison numbers are a result of politics more than anything else, and [changing that] would require a shift in American attitudes, a return to a more compassionate way of looking at other people. I just don’t know. I just don’t see that happening terribly soon.