Equality and justice are words that are frequently called out in support of the United States of America as the very idea of being treated unfairly due to differences has driven constant changes. Discrimination based on a person’s race, gender, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation has been deemed unacceptable and unlawful through numerous changes in the law and interpretations of the Constitution. However, little discussion is had about discrimination based on a person’s economic status in society. Surely everyone has what is considered the equality of opportunity but those who remain in lower classes face discrimination in many social institutions. Specifically, being poor can greatly affect the way that a person is treated by the judicial system. Being wealthy, on the other hand, can make it much easier to navigate the system and come out of it with little to no consequences. Very clearly, the rich get away with crime because lawyers are very expensive, bail is often unattainable by the poor, and rich people can use affluenza as a defense.
First of all, it is notable that the justice system clearly states that a person can be appointed a lawyer if they cannot afford one. Yet, as only the wealthiest of defendants can afford the high price of a private attorney, it is noted that “overworked public defenders may have less time and less economic incentive to evaluate cases accurately” (Hoffman, Rubin, and Shepherd 245). In other words, the poor can get a lawyer but the lawyer will be so busy that their case will get little to no attention. Researchers claim that this means that “well-heeled criminal defendants who retain private counsel often, but not always, receive better representation than that received by indigent defendants or the working poor” (Uphoff 669). Granted, these public defenders may be adequate in their knowledge of the law, but there is not enough public defenders to take on the number of cases and therefore the clients do not get adequate representation. The only way to make certain that a lawyer is giving the case their full attention is to pay them much more money than the funding for public defenders is capable of paying. In short, being rich and able to pay means having a lawyer instead of someone filling that position half-heartedly.

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Another area of expense that separates rich defendants from poor defendants is that of setting and posting bail. Simply put, “the rich have the advantage as they can afford bail; the poor usually cannot” (Kish 76). This means that the poor person must stay in jail until a trial has been conducted and that this jail time may be spent without ever having been found guilty of committing any crime. Simply put, if you cannot pay then you stay. It is a system of paying for a freedom that most people do not have as a possible luxury. Whether it is $100 bail or $100,000 bail is often irrelevant to the defendant as they are either wealthy enough to afford bail or they are not. In America, it is notable that the principle of the “criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty…we have allowed our justice system to ignore that presumption for people living in poverty in a variety of ways. Instead, it often inflicts additional and harsher punishment on individuals because of their poverty” (Zampierin 183). Wealthy people are able to avoid such jail time while poor people have no choice but to endure this imprisonment.

Finally, to make matters worse, rich people have been given an out in terms of their defense that poor people are unable to use. Clearly a defense for the wealthy, affluenza is defined as “socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more’ which allegedly leads extremely wealthy people to commit criminal and acts without remorse” (Douds, et al. 230). Yes, this justifies poor behavior and even criminal acts based on the idea that rich people are taught that these behaviors are acceptable due to their financial status. Researchers explain that “the current trend in the United States is to issue lighter sentences to the wealthy compared to those of lower socioeconomic status– sending the message that wealthy people are above the law, when under the law, all persons are equal” (Eckenroth 444). However, this should not mean that a large ego based on a large bank account should be used as a legal defense. This is the same as saying that being a spoiled child entitles someone to bully others or take what is not theirs. Perhaps this defense is used to justify many actions both in and out of the court rooms!

As it was previously discussed, there is not supposed to be a financial disparity in the justice system as the government pays for legal aid when the person is unable to afford a lawyer. This is the basis for many counterarguments stating that the tax dollars of the wealthy pay for the attorneys for the poor. However, one cannot forget that Hoffman, Rubin, and Shepherd explained that the public defenders are overworked and underpaid for the amount of cases that they cover. Free legal aid does not provide the same level of defense as a privately paid attorney. Instead, these cases simply get pushed through the court system and the defendants get pushed into the prison system.

In closing, it is clear that the level of discrimination in the justice system regarding economic statuses is in favor of the rich people. Not only are the wealthy able to afford proper legal counseling, they are also able to afford their bail and avoid jail time. In the event that the case does go to trial, the rich have an out that is not afforded to the poor by simply claiming affluenza. Having less ethics and being spoiled, in this defense, suggests that the rich people are simply entitled to committing crimes without consequence.

  • Douds, Anne S., et al. “Public opinion on the affluenza defense, race, and sentencing decisions: results from a statewide poll.” Journal of Crime and Justice 39.1 (2016): 230-242.
  • Eckenroth, Danielle. “Wealthy Justice: The Role Wealth Plays in Sentencing and in the Affluenza Defense.” New Eng. J. on Crim. & Civ. Confinement 41 (2015): 443.
  • Hoffman, Morris B., Paul H. Rubin, and Joanna Shepherd. “An Empirical Study of Public Defender Effectiveness: Self-Selection by the’Marginally Indigent’.” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 3 (2005).
  • Kish, Richard J. “The Injustice of Justice.” Critical Issues in Justice and Politics (2015): 71.
  • Uphoff, Rodney. “BROKE AND BROKEN: CAN WE FIX OUR STATE INDIGENT DEFENSE SYSTEM?: Foreword.” Mo. L. Rev. 75 (2010): 667-1409.
  • Zampierin, Sara. “Foreword: Innocent Until Proven Poor.” Michigan Journal of Race and Law 21.2 (2016): 183-185.