Paris Hilton and the jail factor

The absurd media frenzy over the perils of Paris Hilton shouldn’t obscure the serious issue this made-for-TV pseudo-event raises. That issue is the astonishing number of Americans who are in prisons and jails on any particular day.

At present there are about 2.4 million people behind bars at any one time. We put people in prison at rates that range from about 300 percent to 800 percent higher than other developed nations. While some of these people clearly ought to be behind bars, we also imprison hundreds of thousands of Americans for non-violent drug offenses, and other largely victimless crimes, at an immense social and economic cost.

One reason so many Americans are behind bars is that being in prison, like serving in the military, or not being able to see a doctor if you’re sick, is one of those things that rarely happen to the people who decide issues such as how many people ought to be in prison, or if we should go to war, or if we should guarantee health insurance for all Americans.

A nice example of this mentality is provided by a column in The Washington Post, in which a fancy Washington lawyer argues that Lewis “Scooter” Libby shouldn’t go to jail, despite being convicted of lying to a grand jury about his role in a series of events that has plunged the nation into a disastrous war.

According to William Otis, who among other things has been involved in crafting the federal sentencing guidelines that have condemned so many non-violent drug offenders to serve barbarically long sentences, sending Libby to prison at all “would be an injustice to a person who, though guilty in this instance, is not what most people would, or should, think of as a criminal.”

With all due respect to William Otis, Esq., you really can’t make this stuff up. Otis doesn’t even bother to deny that Libby lied under oath to a federal grand jury about matters involving the gravest issues of national security. But to Otis and — to judge from the pleas now issuing from various corners of the Washington establishment — many others among the Georgetown-cocktail-party circuit, this isn’t the kind of thing they think of as being worthy of even a single day in jail.

After all, Libby comes from such a good family, and he went to all the best schools (Philips Andover, Yale and Columbia Law, for heaven’s sake!). If he committed perjury and obstruction of justice, he must have had an excellent — one might even venture to guess a genuinely noble and self-sacrificing — reason for doing so.

I mean, it isn’t as if he sold someone a few hundred dollars’ worth of marijuana (a crime that, because of the sentencing guidelines Otis helped draft, recently sent Weldon Angelos, a man with no criminal record, to federal prison for the next 55 years).

Nor did he, at the age of 17, receive consensual oral sex from a 15-year-old girl, while residing in the great state of Georgia — a crime that has garnered high-school honors student Genarlow Wilson a 10-year prison sentence.

No, all Libby did was lie under oath about some details of a campaign to smear opponents of the Iraq war. To such media luminaries as Time’s Joe Klein, the whole idea of imprisoning Libby is offensive: “Do we really want to spend our tax dollars keeping Scooter Libby behind bars?” Klein asks.

This question, again, is being asked in a nation that has some 2.4 million people behind bars — a large proportion of whom committed crimes that were less morally reprehensible, and almost infinitely less damaging to the nation, than Libby’s lies.

But to Joe Klein, Libby just doesn’t “look” like a criminal. Somebody — perhaps Paris Hilton — should remind Klein that looks aren’t everything.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)

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