Glenn Greenwald continues to be one of the most important political writers we have, shining a glaring light on the corruption, abuses, and overreach of government. Today he talks about the Aaron Swartz case, but even more importantly, the overall stench that runs throughout our Justice system when it comes to prosecutorial abuse.
To begin with, there has been a serious injustice in the Swartz case, and that alone compels accountability. Prosecutors are vested with the extraordinary power to investigate, prosecute, bankrupt, and use the power of the state to imprison people for decades. They have the corresponding obligation to exercise judgment and restraint in how that power is used. When they fail to do so, lives are ruined – or ended.
The US has become a society in which political and financial elites systematically evade accountability for their bad acts, no matter how destructive. Those who torture, illegally eavesdrop, commit systemic financial fraud, even launder money for designated terrorists and drug dealers are all protected from criminal liability, while those who are powerless – or especially, as in Swartz’s case, those who challenge power – are mercilessly punished for trivial transgressions. All one has to do to see that this is true is to contrast the incredible leniency given by Ortiz’s office to large companies and executives accused of serious crimes with the indescribably excessive pursuit of Swartz.
This immunity for people with power needs to stop. The power of prosecutors is particularly potent, and abuse of that power is consequently devastating. Prosecutorial abuse is widespread in the US, and it’s vital that a strong message be sent that it is not acceptable. Swartz’s family strongly believes – with convincing rationale – that the abuse of this power by Ortiz and Heymann played a key role in the death of their 26-year-old son. It would be unconscionable to decide that this should be simply forgotten.
The issue permeates every aspect of our society.
All the statistics are well known at this point. The US imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the world, both in absolute numbers and proportionally. Despite having only roughly 5% of the world’s population, the US has close to 25% of the world’s prisoners in its cages. This is the result of decades of a warped, now-bipartisan obsession with proving “law and order” bona fides by advocating for ever harsher and less forgiving prison terms even for victimless “crimes”.
The “drug war” is the leading but by no means only culprit. The result of this punishment-obsessed justice approach is not only that millions of Americans are branded as felons and locked away, but that the nation’s racial minorities are disproportionately harmed. As the conservative writer Michael Moynihan detailed this morning in the Daily Beast, there is growing bipartisan recognition “the American criminal justice system, in its relentlessness and inflexibility, its unduly harsh sentencing guidelines, requires serious reexamination.” As he documents, prosecutors have virtually unchallengeable power at this point to convict anyone they want.