Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tim Toles’ 2014 depiction of Egypt’s “unknown democracy” is uncomfortably relatable to our own stomping grounds here in the U.S.—a nation renowned for equality and individual rights. Toles’ use of the Egyptian pyramid from bottom to top reflects the pyrrhic defeat theory (widely used as a filter for criminologist’s microscopes), and, ultimately, the evaporating truth of democracy within the criminal justice system. Inscribed on the foundation of the pyramid is the phrase “election where no one voted;” this recalls segregation in the voting booths that spanned decades of U.S. history when African Americans were not allowed to vote, could not afford to vote (post 15th amendment Jim Crow laws), and the continued backlash of white supremacist discrimination that is still a current legal practice under the 1st amendment—as long as violence is kept at bay. Also current is the fact that many so called “free” Americans are still being barred from voting. According to the District of Columbia based outfit Project Vote, “in all but two states, citizens with felony convictions are prohibited from voting either permanently or temporarily. The United States is the only country that permits permanent disenfranchisement of felons even after completion of their sentences.”
Again, regarding the 1st amendment, “restrictions on assembly, speech and groups” do not exist in America. But this is highly debatable within the framework of the criminal justice system. Minorities often step into court with a jury panel constructed from absurd peremptory challenges. Are minorities truly being presumed innocent until proven guilty when the majority of jurors are middle to upper class European Americans? Not to mention the indirect discrimination within the justice system itself. A recent study revealed that prosecutors are getting creative in sifting out potentially qualified jurors—predominately minorities, utilizing “race neutral reasoning” to combat the stipulations of the 14th amendment. The reality of jury pools is that they are manipulated due to “undesirable” characteristics such as religion, educational background, and employment status. Another study, directed at analyzing defense and prosecution attorneys peremptory challenges asserted that a potential juror was removed for “shifty eyes,” and another for having an “unpleasant demeanor.” Often, minority defendants cannot afford defense lawyers, and, realistically, public defenders are underpaid, overworked, and, overall, recall a lightweight boxer against a heavyweight. The takeaway is that many minority defendants are not represented by defenders as they should be constitutionally, and are often “guilty” before entering the courtroom: a dynamic often resulting in a common “out” called plea-bargaining. This out-of-hand haggling practice now represents a ghastly ninety-eight percent of reconciliations pre-trial. A disproportionate amount of minority defendants are turning to these “bargains” as the best choice they have, even if they are innocent.
The capstone of Toles’ pyramid represents “sham trials” and “death sentences;” two subjects that are relatable—both historically and modernly. In 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan exonerated several men from death row because of wrongful evidence that surfaced post-sentence, and commuted more than 160 death row inmates to life in prison without parole after investigations of judicial corruption came to light. Projected into public view by the Innocence Project—a non-profit organization created in 1992—is the fact that, as of 2014, 18 inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence after they had been sentenced to death, and seventy percent of those exonerated were people of color.
Lastly, if you squint, in the lower right corner of Toles’ cartoon panel is the phrase “tourism is down.” This perception hinges not only on the plummeting tourism in Egypt and surrounding vicinities, but to the unprecedented number of inmates currently residing in U.S. prisons. Instead of serving a “tour of duty” in prison, convicts are living out longer sentences, largely imposed for nonviolent drug offenses. Most alarming, however, is that over the past thirty years, America has experienced a five hundred percent increase in total incarcerations. Every day that passes, around 200 more cells are constructed to meet the influx of extended stay prisoners. In the place of chain-gangs, we are creating chain prisons, or are we. Are we the people creating this conglomerate of incarceration, or is the “big” government? Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain who is who in the zoo, but in any case, let us not dismiss the 10th amendment as vague. Never heard of that amendment? Maybe that’s just what they want.