This Unjust System Cannot Survive the Storm
By Michael Bagdes-Canning, Green Party Candidate for PA Lieutenant Governor
I think our justice system is unjust. Worse, even the injustice is applied unjustly. The poor and disenfranchised are unlikely to get a fair shake.
Michael Bagdes-Canning for PA Lieutenant Governor
For Immediate Release
Monday, April 23, 2022
Michael Bagdes-Canning, [email protected]
Moral philosopher John Rawls wrote in his Theory of Justice (1971), "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others."
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in a courtroom, where injustice was prevalent. I was there to support a friend who had participated in an action around an environmental issue. However, before we got to her case, we sat through several others. In every instance, the people on trial were poor, addicted, black, or a combination. In each case, the defendants were victims of a system that is stacked against them, that treats them as less, that had criminalized poverty. A woman in prison, unable to pay a fine imposed when she was deep in her addiction, a young unemployed man incapable of paying even a small amount required to set up a payment plan. What kind of justice is it to further impoverish the already impoverished, to kick an addict rather than treat them?
Our courts are packed with people accused of crimes of poverty -- crimes that people commit because they are impoverished. I’m in no way praising our injustice system, but I will note that the judge did treat the defendants with some dignity. He also showed some compassion for them. Not enough, but some.
My friend is not impoverished in a way that is easily recognized; she is a woman of perceived privilege. Make no mistake, though, she, like most of us, will not have the privilege of escaping the ravages of catastrophic climate change, her generation and ones that follow will deal with the dire consequences of our criminal neglect of this issue. She is already facing an uncertain future, one far less predictable, and less prosperous, than the one that I grew up in.
She was in court because she had been charged with harassment -- she hung a scary Halloween zombie ghost on the fence of a corporate executive of an ecocidal fossil fuel company. Oh my! The executive of a company, which is harassing present and future generations with the prospect of extinction, felt threatened by a zombie ghost. Shades of Ebenezer Scrooge! The Ghost of Christmas Present: "Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?"
Harassment is a silly charge. How about measured self-defense?
She, too, was a victim of our injustice system. Because she dared speak out against an eco-criminal, she had to appear in court, take off time from work, and travel to court. She was required to be there by 1:30. If she missed her court date, she would be guilty by default and fined. Not that her trial started at 1:30.
Defendants are expected to be there, but the court will get to you when it gets to you. In my experience, defendants like my friends are often last. I once sat in a courtroom all afternoon only to be told at the end of the day that I was “no papered,” – meaning there was no paperwork – the prosecutor either lost or, more likely, had no intention of arguing my case. Yet, I spent the entire afternoon in a courtroom, assured my case was coming up “soon.”
Around 2:30, my friend was the only defendant left in the courtroom. She was called to the bench and informed that the officer who was to testify against her was not going to make it. In a just system, she would have been innocent by default -- her accuser didn’t even bother to show up. But, no, her trial would be rescheduled. Another missed day of work, another commute to the courthouse, and more time sitting. Again, I have seen this over and over. I once traveled all the way to Harrisburg only to have the police come up missing. Last autumn, I drove over six hours to Wilmington, DE, where I had to book a room -- only to have the trial rescheduled because the police could not make it. These are not accidents!
In our system, we are told that we are presumed to be innocent until convicted. Yet, we are “fined”ťif we choose to fight against injustice. My friend missed work (and pay), she had costs associated with travel, and she gave up precious life energy. Yet, she still awaits her day in court, her chance at justice. And she will be fined, yet again. Even if she is found innocent, our justice system is unjust.
The Green Party seeks a just system, and as the next Lieutenant Governor of PA, I plan to work for the necessary reforms. As Matthew Stover writes in Shatterpoint (2004), "Jedi fight for civilization, because only civilization creates peace. We fight for justice because justice is the fundamental bedrock of civilization: an unjust civilization is built upon sand. It does not long survive a storm.”
If you would like to join Michael Bagdes-Canning’s campaign for PA Lt. Governor, please contact [email protected].