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How America’s ‘criminal justice complex’ locks up people to feed the beast

Politicians campaign for greater law enforcement, which leads to more police on the streets, which leads to more arrests, which leads to more prosecutors, courtrooms, jails and prisons.

Cook County Jail
Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

More than 20 years ago, I received a call from Cook County Judge Will Gierach asking me to meet him in his chambers.

He had founded one of the most successful municipal law firms in the south suburbs and went on to become a criminal court judge in Markham. Newspaper accounts said he began each day by reading his Bible and writings from a book called “101 Famous Poems.”

He routinely set bail at $100,000 in cases involving just the illegal possession of a handgun.

He was a tough, wise, very traditional man of justice.

Anyway, as I sat in the judge’s chambers, he announced he had something important he wanted to say as he neared retirement.

When President Dwight Eisenhower was leaving office, Gierach reminded me, he had issued a warning to the people of the United States about a military-industrial complex.

Eisenhower felt that government employees, politicians, high-ranking members of the military and the defense industry were working together to create a self-generating multi-billion-dollar industry that would continue to grow and grow regardless of need.

I recalled reading about the speech in history class.

Well, Gierach said, the same thing was happening in the area of criminal justice. He had seen it happening for more than 30 years.

Politicians would campaign for greater law enforcement, which would mean more police on the streets, which would mean more arrests and a need for more prosecutors and more courtrooms, and courthouses and jails and prisons and court reporters and prison guards.

Billions and billions of dollars were being spent, we were locking up more and more people, and it was all going to continue on and on because it was a self-generating machine. The monster had to be fed.

This was a long time ago, as I said. I wrote the column. Nobody seemed to take notice.

According to one study I saw recently, there are now 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities and 80 Indian county jails. Millions of people are locked up.

I don’t know how many people are processed through courthouses in the U.S. each day, but I suggest that everyone visit the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California, or the suburban branch courts nearest them around 9:30 a.m., just to witness the flood of humanity flowing through those places each day. That’s after the COVID-19 threat eases, of course.

I mention this now because of the demonstrations demanding an end to the systemic racism in the criminal justice system. No one who has spent much time in a courtroom or visited a jail or prison can deny that. Yet, there is disagreement about what should be done.

Some people think more Black people need to be locked up.

I heard the president’s chief of staff on Sunday suggest the real problem is with looting and shootings by the demonstrators. This is not happening in Trump’s country, he emphasized. The problems are occurring in cities and states run by Democrats, and Donald Trump would be pleased to send in the military to straighten things out, even if those places are not part of his country.

The Democrats, the progressives and the Black Lives Matter folks are living in that segment of the country that was once considered part of the United States, but has been banished due to bad behavior.

Locking people up has not worked. Putting people in prison has not worked. Hiring more police and building more courthouses and prisons has not worked.

So now people, teenagers, are carrying rifles, AR-15s, in the streets and police stand by as people get shot. Police are being pelted with projectiles, shot at and insulted.

Police are sometimes sitting on the necks of civilians until they die or shooting them multiple times. There is chaos.

Send in the troops! Let the military industrial complex finally meet up with the criminal justice complex. It seem inevitable. Welcome to Trump’s country.


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