Are Americans Really That Desperate to See Jussie Smollett Behind Bars?

Lady Justice (Image from WilliamCho via Pixabay)

In a recent piece for the New Yorker, columnist Josie Duffy Rice argues that the outrage over the decision to drop all charges against actor and singer Jussie Smollett highlights the American people’s hypocrisy on the issue of criminal justice reform. “There are currently two million incarcerated people in this country,” she explains. “Another four and a half million are under some other form of correctional control. Yet, with the Smollett case, it is leniency that gets the attention. There’s a common belief that criminal-justice reform is one of the few bipartisan issues left in politics. But our thirst for punishment is equally politically salient.”

Rice hits all the right notes throughout her piece. She points out that the decision let Smollett walk was not out of the ordinary; Illinois has long suffered from severe prison overcrowding, and authorities have been taking steps to try and address that problem. One of those steps has been to stop aggressive prosecutions of citizens who do not pose a threat to the public. At Cook County Jail, Sheriff Thomas Dart and his staff have had to go the extra mile, providing extensive mental health services to mentally ill inmates and going to bat for cash-strapped individuals who don’t have the money to make bail.

In that context, the decision to let Smollett off the hook makes plenty of sense. If Smollett is indeed guilty of perpetrating a hate crime hoax on the American public, the severity of his crime is much greater than he himself probably realizes. But does he pose a threat to anyone? Is he someone that police will have to keep an eye on now that he’s back on the streets? Is it really necessary to hand him off to a prison system that already has more inmates than it can handle at the moment?

Rice also exposes the contrast between the Chicago F.O.P.’s handling of then-officer Jason Van Dyke after he shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and the organization’s fiery rebuke of the prosecutors responsible for the Smollett decision. And she’s right to do so. It took more than a year for former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to file charges against Van Dyke after the 2014 shooting of McDonald. After posting bond, Van Dyke was hired to work as a janitor at — wait for it — the Chicago F.O.P. headquarters. He was later convicted of murder and sentenced to nearly seven years behind bars.

Rice’s mention of the Van Dyke case isn’t your typical case of whataboutism; it’s an important reminder that our opinions about justice are often tainted with the foul stench of tribalism. The Chicago F.O.P. was willing to extend a helping hand to a brother in blue who had been accused of murder, yet they cannot abide the decision to let a famous, nonviolent offender walk free?

The tribalism doesn’t stop there. The Smollett case has in many ways served as a proxy war between Trump supporters and left-wing media. From the perspective of MAGA country, the media’s handling of the case early on — more specifically, the hesitation to interrogate Smollett more forcefully once evidence of a hoax began to emerge — is further proof of progressive efforts to unfairly smear Trump supporters as violent bigots.

But the Smollett case isn’t just about politics; it’s also a story about a celebrity who allegedly attempted to game the system, refuses to accept any responsibility for it, and was ultimately rewarded for his obstinance. Americans are intimately familiar with that story, and they’ve grown increasingly sick of it, hence the outrage over the college admissions scandal involving Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

That scandal has received an enormous amount of attention not because it’s shocking, but because it’s yet another example of wealthy, famous celebrities leveraging their resources to circumvent the rules that the rest of society is expected to follow. Are Smollett and his associates guilty of attempting to do the same? And are Chicago prosecutors guilty of letting it happen?

We must keep in mind that justice isn’t just about outcomes; it’s also about the processes that determine those outcomes. And in the Smollett case, the process that led to the dismissal of charges smells awfully rotten. The original prosecutor in the case, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, was contacted by former Obama administration aide Tina Tchen early on in the investigation. Tchen explained that she is a friend of Smollett’s family, and that she wanted to connect Foxx with relatives of Jussie who were concerned about how Chicago police were handling the investigation. Foxx later recused herself, but that didn’t stop her from intervening after prosecutors brought charges against Smollett. Coupled with Smollett’s refusal to admit wrongdoing, Foxx’s questionable conduct gives the impression that the process failed, and that its failure can at least be partly attributed to Smollett’s celebrity status.

Truth be told, I am unashamedly sympathetic to Josie Rice’s position. On the issue of criminal justice reform, I’m decidedly left-wing. I’m opposed to capital punishment. I do not believe juveniles should ever be tried as adults except in cases of premeditated murder. I believe that drug possession should be decriminalized — and that goes for all illicit drugs, including crack, meth and heroin. And I believe that every former offender who has finished their time in prison should be allowed to vote in elections.

I can also say that even if Smollett is guilty of carrying out a truly heinous hoax that greatly exacerbated racial and political tensions in this country, I don’t really want him to go to prison for it. I’d much rather him stand before a camera and atone for his sins by issuing a genuine, heartfelt apology to everyone he hurt, including his friends and family, the citizens of Chicago, and yes, even Trump supporters. No matter how you feel about the MAGA crowd, no one deserves to be associated with a vile crime that never actually happened; that is an injustice in and of itself.

But prison time? No, I do not think that’s necessary.

That being said, I don’t see any contradiction between supporting fewer and/or lighter punishments for nonviolent offenders and demanding that wealthy, well-connected celebrities like Jussie Smollett be held accountable for their alleged crimes. The calls for accountability in this case aren’t necessarily demands that Smollett be put behind bars; they’re demands that Smollett be forced to undergo the process of figuring out what the appropriate punishment, if any, should be. Had Smollett gone before a judge, owned up to the allegations against him, and accepted a deal that provided some sort of punishment other than prison — perhaps probation or a couple hundred hours of community service — I don’t believe the subsequent backlash would come anywhere close to what we’ve seen over the last several weeks. Nor do I believe that the average American would be all that outraged that a man who didn’t kill anyone, assault anyone, or trample on anyone’s rights was permitted to retain his freedom.

I don’t think that Americans are gluttons for revenge. I think they’ve just lost patience with a two-tiered criminal justice system that consistently spares society’s most influential citizens of the same sorts of punishments that have effectively ruined the lives of millions of poor and mentally ill people, people who will never get the second chances that celebrities like Smollett are constantly afforded.

The path to criminal justice reform isn’t a path paved exclusively in progressive policies; the restoration of trust between the American people and the criminal justice system should be regarded as an equally important component of the push for reform. And to achieve that trust, Americans need to see a degree of judicial consistency that has thus far failed to materialize. They need to know that if the criminal justice system is ultimately redesigned to be more merciful in its execution of the law, it will be just as merciful towards average, everyday Americans as it already is to celebrities like Jussie Smollett. They also need to know that the process of determining whether someone deserves to be sent home or deserves to be sent to prison will be the same regardless of which stratum in America’s socioeconomic hierarchy the defendant happens to occupy.

In other words, most Americans can live with seeing Jussie Smollett avoid prison. What they cannot tolerate, though, is a total lack of accountability seemingly brought about by a corrupted process that only ever advantages the most advantaged among us.

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.

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