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Castro Strikes a Nerve

By aiming the spotlight on the criminal justice system in the U.S., which incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation, President Castro exposed a tender nerve for Washington.
 
 
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In April 2005 the international community began to take a closer look at the United States justice system as its government attempted to explain and or deny the presence of admitted terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles. As news stories sprouted from even mainstream media calling for the extradition of Posada to Venezuela, a country with which the U.S. has had a longstanding extradition treaty, Washington went into a frenzy.

After some false starts concerning what it was going to do about Posada, Washington "defended" its position by hurling barbs at Cuban President Fidel Castro about the political asylum granted to Assata Shakur by the Cuban government. President Castro retorted that Ms. Shakur had not received justice in the United States and that she, like many other political prisoners, had been persecuted and denied a fair trial.

By aiming the spotlight on the criminal justice system in the United States, President Castro exposed a tender nerve for Washington. My more than 20 years as a criminal defense lawyer and professor of criminal defense advocacy confirm the widely known assessment that every aspect of the criminal justice system is ripe for criticism and laden with hypocrisy.

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation on earth. The population of the United States comprises 5% of the world's population but its incarcerated population is equal to more than 25% of the world's prisoners.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 5.9% of white males. In other words, one third of black men can expect to be incarcerated during their life times if they live in the United States.

Incarceration in the U.S. is a growing industry. In 2001, an estimated 2.7% of adults in the U.S. had served time in prison, up from 1.8% in 1991 and 1.3% in 1974.  The BJS reports that as of December 31, 2001, there were an estimated 5.6 million adults who had ever served time in state or federal prison, including 4.3 million former prisoners and 1.3 million adults in prison. 

At every stage of the criminal justice system in the U.S., blacks, Latinos, Chicanos and other people of color and the poor are disproportionately impacted. Decisions by law enforcement personnel concerning who to stop, who to arrest and how to charge, are all infused with racial bias. Decisions regarding indictments, plea offers and requests for enhanced sentences and the death penalty, are similarly guided by considerations of race and class.

Sentencing decisions regarding probation and incarceration reflect the same racial overtones as the earlier stages of the system. The racist practices of prosecutors was so prevalent that in 1986 the United States Supreme Court finally outlawed the practice of routinely removing blacks from the jury in Batson v. Kentucky (476 U.S. 79). Prior to 1986, the courts routinely ignored the practice. Following Batson, prosecutors simply offered pre-textual reasons for their racist challenges to potential jurors and the courts turned a blind eye.

Prisoners in the U.S. are systematically incarcerated hundreds, and in many instances thousands, of miles away from their families and loved ones. Family contact is discouraged and thwarted. Frequently family members travel hundreds of miles to visit their loved one and they are denied entry on minor technicalities.

U.S. prison officials regularly create obstacles when attorneys seek to visit their clients. Memos authorizing the visit mysteriously disappear on the day the attorney arrives for the visit. Use of private attorney-client conference rooms is denied. Visits are inexplicably cut short and routinely monitored by video camera and roaming guards.

Similar tactics are often employed against political defendants during pretrial proceedings. The cases of both Assata Shakur and the Cuban 5 are reflective of the unconstitutional obstacles created to interfere in trial preparation. Shakur's lawyer, Evelyn Williams, had to obtain a court order to get access to her client. Lawyers for the Cuban 5 were limited to brief designated time periods when they were allowed to meet with their clients prior to trial.

Such interferences compromise the ability of the defendants and their counsel to develop trial strategy, prepare testimony and make crucial decisions about witnesses and evidence. In the case of the Cuban 5, independent polls showed that it would be impossible for them to get a fair trial in Miami. Despite this objective evidence, the judge denied the defendants' motion for a change of venue, even to Fort Lauderdale, just 30 miles away.

Assata Shakur's requests for a change of venue were initially denied and then finally granted with a move to Morris County, one of the richest and most conservative overwhelmingly white counties in the state of New Jersey. Further, the hysterical pretrial publicity assisted in creating an atmosphere that guaranteed the defendants would not get a fair trial.

Last month President Fidel Castro delivered a calculated series of public addresses that have been heard around the world, including in the United States. The arduous campaign to obtain justice for the Cuban 5 and to expose the hypocrisy of the criminal justice system has been the backdrop to these presentations.

President Castro's expose of the system rings so very true to the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated in the United States and the more than 100 political prisoners who are currently held in its prisons. The millions who have had their lives interrupted by the criminal "justice" system know that fairness is usually an illusion discussed widely in classrooms but not mentioned in courtrooms. They know it's unjust. Castro's pronouncements bear witness to the fact that "justice" in the United States, isn't justice at all.

Jill Soffiyah Elijah, Esq. is deputy director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School.

This editorial does not reflect the viewpoints of Harvard University, Harvard Law School, its programs or departments. Institutional affiliation is listed for identification purposes only.