Sentencing Disparity in the American Oligarchy

Judge T.S. Ellis’s lenient sentence of Paul Manafort came as a jolt. It should not have. I know better. So do you.

I am an ordained minister of the gospel who has spent lots of time in courtrooms. It was a short step from pulpits of privilege to a criminal defense law firm founded by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights center. I left the pulpit, but the faith that points to an essential human dignity went with me. Irrespective of the seriousness of the charges and crimes, I saw, or tried to see, a dignity and worth in defendants no court sentence can take away.

Legal Rights Center clients convicted of serious crimes were sentenced to the state prisons, about as far from the comforts of federal prisons as their neighborhoods were from gated communities and country clubs.

Unlike the inmates of Faribault and Stillwater who have been found guilty of street crimes, a great number of the guests of the federal correctional system are doing time for white collar crimes. There’s a world of difference. Yet, as to sentence disparity, they are the same.

Comparing Judge Ellis’s 13 year sentence of African-American Congressman William J. Jefferson (D) from Louisiana in 2009 with the 47 month sentence of the former chair of the president’s presidential campaign committee draws attention to the ugly realities of race and class we often see but quickly forget or choose not to see at all.

We do not live in a democracy; we live in an oligarchy—
“government by the few, especially despotic power exercised
by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish
purposes.” I’ve been waiting for people in high places to say it.

Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the
Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations4 brought the
elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.

A democratic republic is a constitutional form of government
where the people rule through their elected representatives
gathered in deliberative bodies. The faces and voices of Goldman
Sachs’s executives demonstrated the intransigent arrogance of the
private institutional concentration of the wealth and power of deregulated capitalism.

The matter is growing more serious.

The “small and privileged group” that operates corruptly and
selfishly knows that elections are bought and sold in America. No
one gets elected without big money. Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations brought the elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.

Excerpt, gordon c. stewart, “The american oligarchy — 4/29/10,” p.126, Be Still! Departure from collective madness (2017, wipf & stock).

Nine years after publishing The American Oligarchy, the reality is, for the most part, the same. But there is a difference. The selfishness of “despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes” (Encylopaedia Brittanica definition of oligarchy) feels heavier now. The judge’s lenient sentence of Paul Manafort caught me off-guard. How quickly we forget!

“The American Oligarchy” was first published by with the title “They may squirm in hearings, but Wall Street Oligarchs know who has he power.” With Minnpost’s generous copyright permission, it became one of Be Still!’s 49 essays on faith and the news.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 9, 2019.

A Good Step toward Societal Sanity

The Definition of Insanity: “To keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.”  this article from protestants for the common good offers hope for a saner and better way.

A Prison Nation No More

Rev. Alexander Sharp on Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Prison Nation No More

Not too long ago, the police department, the prosecutor’s office, and the public defenders association  in Seattle, Washington were stalemated.  They had been fighting for eight years over allegations of discriminatory law enforcement against African American and Hispanics for low level offenses.  Finally, a police lieutenant interrupted one of their meetings: “This isn’t helping anyone.  What can we do differently?”

They worked together to create a radically new approach. Those who designed it will be joining us at the Chicago Temple on October 10 for the Robert B. Wilcox Symposium, “Serving Our Communities: Alternatives to Incarceration.”

We hope you will be present to meet them and other leaders in criminal justice to learn about their solution:  in Seattle’s LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, police work directly with social service providers without having to navigate the court system first.  This may be the only place in the country where this is happening.  Early signs are that it is working well.

Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle; Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez; Chicago Police Superintendent, Garry McCarthy; and Milwaukee County District Attorney, John Chisholm will participate.  We will also be bringing forward two other models for keeping non-violent low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system:  Milwaukee County Treatment Alternatives and Diversion and Adult Redeploy in Illinois.  These programs are making communities safer, saving tax payers money, and enabling non-violent offenders to rebuild their lives.

Consider that Adult Redeploy Illinois, which funds counties to divert non-violent offenders who would otherwise be headed to the Department of Corrections, has 10 sites which have already saved $11 million in incarceration costs. We will be meeting the leaders of their Macon County project, an early success.

The need for such alternatives is overwhelming. Due in large part to the failed War on Drugs, the United States has become a prisoner nation, with 2.3 million incarcerated, more per capita than any other country on the planet. This includes 49,000 in Illinois, disproportionately African American and Hispanic. About 20% of those in Illinois prisons are there on average just 60 days.  Most will be re-incarcerated within three years.  We are cycling people in and out of prison at huge cost and great suffering.

Last week at the Illinois Justice Commission hearings organized by The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which organizes African American churches, one ex-offender observed:  “We recycle cans, paper, and cardboard.  Can’t we spend just a little bit more to restore our most valuable resource — human beings?”  That’s what diversion does.  It makes new lives possible.

These programs are leaders in a movement toward sane public policy.  Wise investments now can help us avoid much larger costs later. The difficulty is in making the case so convincingly that even elected officials, some of whom won’t get the credit in future years, are willing to do the right thing today.

LEAD is the national test case of whether we can move toward this better way.  Two foundations — Open Society and Ford — are providing drug treatment, housing, counseling and other services for next four years, long enough to establish what can be accomplished with adequate support.  At the symposium, we will learn how the leaders of LEAD are approaching the difficult problem of evaluation.

Please join us on Wednesday, October 10, to hear more and ask questions. These models represent a new paradigm for responding to those on the margins whose lives have been damaged in no small measure by misguided drug policy. They deserve your attention and support.

Published by Protestants for the Common Good, 332 S. Michigan Ave.Suite 500 Chicago, IL 60604 | contact us.