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Interview with the Prosecutor

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Steve Heath was a prosecutor, working for two years in New Orleans and another seven in Dallas. He has been in the engine room of the criminal justice system.

I met with him to ask him for his perspective and to provide a perspective that we, as ordinary citizens, would never have on inner-city crime and justice issues. All quotes in this post are from him.

[The DA’s office] got Federal grants — Federal money — but all they were doing was hand-to-hand drug sales of punks on the street, mostly black, OK? And they got tons of Federal money. They never ever got beyond the street level and got somebody really big — a drug dealer or a money launderer …

The Federal government gives counties money to prosecute crimes. Two major areas Heath cited are drug offences and domestic violence. So where you pay people to prosecute, it is not hard to figure out that you are going to get more prosecutions. Are they valid prosecutions? Well, where are your controls?

Heath said that most of the people prosecuted for dealing drugs are just go-betweens that are lured in by the promise of easy money.

You could set those people up forever … The cop will come to [the kid], “I want to buy a certain amount of cocaine.” So he goes and talks to the kid he knows who sells cocaine.

“Can you get me more?” “Well, I guess so.”  [The kid says], “Hey, this is a good deal, I’m making money off this stuff.” He was never even inclined to do it before. They get him to a certain level, next thing you know, they’re recommending a four or five year sentence for him on the first offence.

Just as in any other human activity, the competence of prosecutors is distributed over a range. One of the characteristics that Heath observed to distinguish good prosecutors from time-servers was their willingness to do real investigative work and follow the leads to the ultimate sources of crime.

You can see how the prisons get filled up. Black kid gets set up, he gets probation, he makes a mistake and gets a dirty UA on his test, it gets revoked. Next thing you know he’s unemployed, he can’t get a job, what’s he gonna do? Next thing you know, they’re all in the prisons. It is kind of racist, so I thought, “Black people kind of have a point here.” [Prosecutors and cops] are disproportionately setting them up.

I don’t think police are doing it because they’re racists; [the targets] are just easy marks. You can get Federal money all there and set up all these people, you can get your stats up: “500 more convictions than last year! 10% more than when the prosecutor took over three years ago!” But that’s all they focus on.

Given the incentives, it is easy to understand the pressures on ordinary police. The prosecutor wants to run up his score and the Feds are offering money for which they want to see results. You don’t do this in leafy Deerfield, Illinois or Highland Park, Texas, where the kids have parents who will get lawyers and contest the cases. You need concentrated people who can’t effectively defend themselves. Those people are going to be living in cities and are going to be disproportionately black.

The prosecutors like the statistics, because they can wave them in front of the voters. The Feds like the statistics, because they provide reassurance that the grant programs are effective and the money given out is used effectively. But it is all bogus.

“Win 98% of our cases.” Yeah, you win that many because you never try any tough cases. You just set up these punk cases, that most of them plead out because they have no choice. That’s where I’m sympathetic with the black mindset, where what I call the “prison-industrial complex” where everybody makes a ton of money setting up people.

Heath also had some observations about police training. He strongly disliked the evolution of the shoot-to-kill policies in policing.

It kind of starts with — I can’t remember the Supreme Court case of 20-30 years ago, which basically allowed the use of force by the police if they felt their lives were in jeopardy. So that kind of opened the door, then they got a lot of governmental immunity. It’s hard to get these cases prosecuted civilly.

This article discusses the two cases from the 1980s that match up to Heath’s description:

They’re trained that, if their lives are in danger, you don’t shoot to wing somebody in the arms, or legs, whatever; you shoot to kill. So the training is bad, and frankly I think the training has gotten worse since Homeland Security money has come in here. It’s more like, police are starting to have their own mentality of fear and intimidation, rather than serve and protect.

He also observed incidence of what only can be described as overkill.

What bothers you is that they don’t just shoot them once sometimes. You see these videos, also — there was this impaired man in the street, and he got up and he had a knife. There were twenty cops surrounding him, and he got up and took two steps and all of a sudden fifteen cops shoot 38 bullets in him. He was not within thirty feet of anybody.

Heath noted that you don’t have to be black to get the short end of the fear-and-intimidation stick.

I was down in Austin and I made an wrong turn, and next thing you know a bunch of cops pull me over. I start to get out and there are three of them with guns pulled, screaming at me, “Get out of the car!”

Heath observed that there are energetic and lazy police just as there are in any other line of work. He placed his emphasis on the leadership positions; these determine what behaviors will or will not be tolerated, what training will be delivered and what culture will be cultivated.

You really need to work on fostering good race relations by listening to black leaders who are saying, “Why is it always the black kids you are setting up on all these drug charges?”

One of the side effects of the war on drugs is the feeding of what Heath calls “the prison-industrial complex,” likening it to the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned about.

It’s an industry. It’s cluttering our prisons. Get ’em on probation, revoke and then they can’t get jobs, they can’t get work. I remember the stats were, like, 70% of blacks between 18 and 34 — males — were in probation, prison or parole. That’s insane. Mostly for drug offenses.

He said that he had, at one time, been in favor of drug criminalization. His experiences in the cities had soured him on it.

The war on drugs has been a complete and total failure. They never try to go to the top. HSBC and Wachovia were both convicted of laundering massive amounts of drug money. Wachovia conveniently folded at the time, got bought up by Wells Fargo. HSBC, what’d they get, a billion dollar fine or something?

Here are some additional links relating to HSBC:

He supports community policing initiatives. He does not believe that the majority of police are abusing their authority, but those that are have an effect on public perception beyond their number.

They police officers need to walk a beat. They need to get to know the people in their neighborhood. They need to develop their snitches, their sources, their whatever. Get a pulse … They need to bond with the community.

Heath expressed the hope that we could get back to a serve-and-protect model of law enforcement that did not view the people in the community as adversaries.

Written by srojak

December 11, 2016 at 7:25 pm