CHAPTER 1: THE MOSTLY INVISIBLE CATASTROPHE
BRENDA VALENCIA, A NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD WITH NO HISTORY OF DRUG USE or criminal behavior, made a terrible mistake in 1991. She gave a ride to her roommate’s stepmother, a cocaine dealer. She drove the woman to the West Palm Beach, Florida, home of a man who turned out to be another dealer. Valencia remembers being impressed by the spacious, luxurious house. She watched the World Series on TV with the daughter of the man who lived there, and he and her passenger went outside to talk. The phone rang, and Valencia picked it up. According to Valencia, “The guy on the end of the line said, ‘Who’s this?’ I told him and asked if I could take a message. He said, ‘Yes, tell him to beep me.’ There was nothing said about money or drugs. Just, can I take a message?” But the prosecution would later argue that this phone call helped prove that Brenda Valencia was part of a conspiracy and that her passenger had picked up some money at the home with Valencia’s help. Swept up in a raid, Valencia was sentenced to the mandatory minimum. “That’s the first thing my lawyer told me,” she recalls, “the mandatory minimum, that I couldn’t get less than twelve years, seven months. I knew I deserved punishment for being stupid. But twelve years, seven months? I couldn’t believe it. I tried to tell them, ‘Look at my bank account. I’m not a drug dealer. I’m a student, just a regular person.’”
Although her case was Kafkaesque, it was also terrifyingly routine. In only one respect was it unique: it attracted plenty of attention, probably because U.S. District Court Judge Jose A. Gonzalez Jr., forced to pronounce the zero-tolerance sentence predetermined by law, called that sentence “absurd’ and “an insult to justice.”2 Editorials blasted away at the rigidity of the statute that prevented Gonzalez from giving Valencia probation and a stern lecture. But eventually the media moved on. Valencia served the full sentence.
President Bill Clinton, who pardoned 140 people on his last day in office, January 20, 2001, ignored a petition from Valencia, even though it was supported by a letter from Judge Gonzalez. Among those Clinton pardoned was Marc Rich, who had been charged with fifty-one counts of tax fraud and had fled U.S. jurisdiction for a sanctuary in Switzerland before he was indicted. While Rich thumbed his nose at the rules, his wife made substantial donations to the Clinton library and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Now married and the mother of two, Brenda Valencia Aldana works in a counseling program for incarcerated teens. The pardoned Marc Rich, no longer a fugitive, remains a billionaire financier living in a Swiss villa surrounded by his private collection of Monets, Picassos, and Renoirs. The law never touched him.
As for Valencia, her confinement for all those years was no accident. It was part of a deliberate policy pursued by a prison-industrial complex that profits from harsh justice, injustice, and sometimes no justice at all. It was nurtured by intellectual sloth, the war on drugs, and the same gratuitous fear and loathing that Hunter Thompson found dictating so many corners of American society. The economic war waged against the vast majority of Americans by a determined group at the top of the financial scale at last found broad recognition in 2011, when the Occupy movement spread from Wall Street to cities around America. But few Americans have recognized the connection between accelerating economic inequality and the leap in incarceration that accompanied it. Both trends were made possible by the acceptance of the underlying premise that some people’s lives have less value than others.
■ FRISBEE SENTENCES
Starting around the time President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, a combination of economic, social, and political forces hijacked the criminal justice system, tossing punitive sentences around like Frisbees and creating a structure that works contrary to the mission of creating a safer, more humane society. Providing false solutions through political posturing, fear-mongering, and manipulating the twenty-four-hour news cycle has resulted in the incarceration of 2.3 million people, a population about the size of Houston’s. Most of these prisoners don’t belong behind bars.
Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag will be available online and at better bookstores everywhere. It may be prepurchased at Amazon here.
Causes Ivan Goldman Supports
American Heart Association
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Beit T'Shuvah Recovery Program