By now, most folks know that conservative Idaho senator Larry Craig pled guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge in order to escape a more serious–and more embarrassing–charge that he solicited sex in the men’s restroom of our own Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. After years of observing the criminal justice system at work, it’s hard not to compare and contrast Craig’s predicament with that of many of the people we have assisted.
Opinion: Thoughts on the Larry Craig case
First, there’s the “crime” itself. Craig was arrested in a sting operation by a police officer for allegedly looking through the crack of the bathroom stall at the cop, sliding his foot under the stall and putting his hand under the stall. Being female, this writer is not knowledgeable about men’s bathroom etiquette but so far this doesn’t sound like it constitutes much of a crime. Even if the aforementioned conduct is secret code for “let’s get freaky,” wouldn’t that pretty much be a victimless “crime” as long as the parties involved are consenting adults? Setting aside the hypocrisy of Craig’s homophobia as a policy maker, why are cops wasting their time hanging out in restrooms at the airport waiting to bust such conduct?
Compare this to the “crime” that has stuffed our jails and prisons to the brim over the past four decades: marijuana possession and use. Again, another non-violent, victimless crime that seems an awful waste of resources to enforce. Both of these “crimes” are based more on police and societal prejudices than on any actual harm.
Second, Craig has said he pled guilty to a lesser charge because he was afraid and felt pressured. As a US Senator, this guy is one of the most powerful people in the country and, by extension, the world. That he could be stressed to the point of mental breakdown and feel compelled to plead guilty over a relatively minor charge that never carried the threat of a prison sentence says something about the power of this criminal justice system and the raw fear it can instill, even in someone who has resources and can himself wield a great deal of power. Think of how much fear this system strikes in the heart of a young, poor person of color who is wrongly accused of a crime, knowing the resources of the state are arrayed against him and that he is powerless to stop the juggernaut.
Craig chose to forego an attorney when he took his plea and paid his fine. Most of the young and poor who are caught up in this system do not have the luxury to choose a private attorney. They are assigned a public defender. A good many of these public defenders do a solid, even noble job for their clients but others are lackluster at best or even in cahoots with prosecutors. The kind of PD you get is largely luck of the draw.
Craig has now asked to withdraw his guilty plea. A hearing has been set for the end of this month and Craig may well get his legal “do over.” This brings to mind a court case this writer observed some months ago. The case involved four defendants. Two were represented by public defenders and two by private attorneys. However, the two PDs and one of the private attorneys appeared to be in cahoots with the prosecution and possibly the judge. These three attorneys had each convinced their clients that the other defendants were going to “roll” on them so they should plead guilty to a lesser (but still serious) offense.
The fourth attorney vigorously defended the client, who was found not guilty. The other three defendants cried foul and one wanted to withdraw his guilty plea. However, this system hates to have its work undone by defendants who suddenly realize they got snookered. The judge denied the request to withdraw the guilty plea and that man went to prison for a crime he did not commit. It seems all but certain that Larry Craig will not meet this same fate, given that he has hired an army of “dream team” lawyers and can afford to pay them enough not to sell him down the river.
However it ends, the Craig case is rich with lessons on the power of the criminal justice system and its effects on the powerful and not so powerful who find themselves in its grip.
Michelle Gross works with Communities United Against Police Brutality, a local group working for police and criminal justice system accountability and providing advocacy for victims of police misconduct.