Journalism

The hotel heiress America loves and hates and our criminal justice system

by Amaury Nora

I am really shocked at the resources which are clearly being devoted to cover the whole Paris Hilton affair. Even though there are people calling for government accountability among the public and by a few politicians, American media continues to be guilty of negligence when it comes to delivering critical news. The first question I have is why does America continue to consider Pair Hilton’s escapades newsworthy? How is it possible that a socialite’s fate is considered more important than issues like immigration, the G8 summit, global warming, or other world affecting news???

Instead of adding to the endless junk reporting that continues to dumb down America, I will use this opportunity to reflect on the distinction between the rich and the poor when it comes to incarceration, and the deception by the media, the talking heads, and white culture in justifying Paris Hilton. The intersection of racial dynamics within the criminal justice system has long been a concern. The problem of whether those in prison tend to be drawn from the ranks of the poor, unemployed, and low social status is indicative of willful discrimination against the underprivileged.

First, some background information regarding Paris Hilton’s prison sentence. One thing must be clarified: Paris is not going to jail for minor traffic violation; the reality is, she was caught driving under the influence and is being sent to prison for violating her probation. On Sept. 7, 2006, police arrested Paris Hilton in Hollywood on suspicion of driving under the influence after she was spotted “driving erratically” while out to pick up a late-night burger. Hilton was charged with a misdemeanor for driving under the influence and in January, her lawyers entered not guilty pleas for driving under the influence and driving with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or above. Less than a week later, Paris was pulled over again, knowing that her license was suspended in connection with the September DUI charge, and after she had signed a document acknowledging she was not supposed to drive. This forced her to make a plea of “no contest” in order to reduce her charges of alcohol-related reckless driving. The pleas earned her three years of probation and a $1,500 fine. Paris also was told by the court to enroll in an alcohol education program, which she failed to do within 21 days of her sentencing.

Did any of that stop her? Hell no! One month later, she was stopped again by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies after dark for driving 70 mph in a 35 mph zone with a suspended license and “without her headlights on.” Because it was the third time she violated her probation, in May, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Sauer sentenced Hilton to 45 days in the Century Regional Detention Facility. In his order, Sauer also stipulates that Hilton is not allowed a work furlough nor she is eligible for electronic monitoring.

What makes this story strange is the sheriff who does not want poor little Paris to go to jail. On May 16, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, citing sentencing guidelines, decided that the hotel heiress would only serve 23 days in a special unit away from the general prison population. Once the inmates heard about this they were angry, since Paris was already getting special treatment, according to an old CBS ShowBuzz.com article that suddenly disappeared. A copy of the article from Google’s cache:

Susannah Johnson, who was released Saturday after a one-day stay at the jail, said many inmates were angry at Hilton, believing officials were making room for the starlet at the expense of others coping with crowded conditions.

“The only advice I could give her when she comes is to shut her mouth and do the time,” said Johnson, 35, of Claremont.

After serving three days in a 100 square foot “administrative segregation” cell and after her lawyers reported she was fine, Hilton was suddenly released because of an “undisclosed medical condition.” Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca took it upon himself to violate California law by reversing the judge’s order and decided that Paris would be placed under house arrest in her multimillion Hollywood Hills mansion where she is ordered to wear an electronic monitor bracelet with a range of 3,000 to 4,000 square feet for the next 40 days. This is so hypocritical because right before she was to serve her time in la pinta (Spanish slang for da joint), she told reporters how she turned down the possibility of serving her 23-day sentence in an upmarket jail because she needed to prove she is “like everyone else.”

“I am trying to be strong right now,” Paris said of her jail time set to begin Tuesday. “I’m really scared but I’m ready to face my sentence.”

“I did have a choice to go to a pay jail,” said Hilton, without giving details. “But I declined because I feel like the media portrays me in a way that I’m not and that’s why I wanted to go to county, to show that I can do it and I’m going to be treated like everyone else. I’m going to do the time, I’m going to do it the right way.”

Baca claimed his decision had nothing to do with preferential treatment of a celebrity and that his decision was based on medical advice. On Friday, June 8, Judge Sauer would have none of that and overturned Sheriff Baca’s decision to allow Paris to serve the remainder of her time at home. In other words, she will be serving her full 45-days in da joint for violating parole on her reckless driving charge. During a hearing, the judge said he had not been provided facts of the medical condition that apparently prompted her release. However, there is speculation she had a nervous breakdown, but the judge was not given any further details of her breakdown by her psychiatrist. Also during the hearing, it was reported that Paris cried uncontrollably, dabbing her eyes, as her body was shaking constantly. Several times, she turned to her parents, seated behind her in the courtroom, and mouthed, “I love you.”

Now people are taking sides, as the issue of the celebrity incarcerations has become a polarizing topic. One Net magazine, The Online Wire, asks why were people happy to see Paris Hilton carted off to da joint? The answer is simple. The inequity here is pretty stark, particularly when it relates to sentencing. Just because racial discrimination is not as explicit as it was 50 years ago does not mean it does not exist. Racial discrimination in sentencing today is more of a subtle process, manifesting itself in connection with other factors and producing racially discriminatory outcomes in certain situations.

For instance, for those wondering what she meant by a “pay jail,” she was talking about California’s pay-to-stay program for minor lawbreakers with major cash. The program “operates like the secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world,” according to a recent New York Times article. “You have to be in the know to even apply for entry.”

Back in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Writing at the turn of that century, Du Bois foresaw that the fight for racial equality was far from over and was likely to demand the nation’s attention for yet another hundred years. Despite all the significant gains achieved by the civil rights movement, this problem remains true in the 21st century. Most people would agree that imprisonment is a harsh and dehumanizing experience and must be imposed only as the last recourse. However, here in the US, actions speak louder than our hollow words. America leads the world in figures of prisons and prisoners, and African-Americans, though only one eighth of its population, make up nearly half the locked down. According to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, approximately 8 percent of black males between 25 and 29 were incarcerated in 2005, compared to 2.2 percent Latinos and 1.1 percent whites. Black males in general accounted for nearly 550,000 of the 1.4 million federal and state prison inmate population, and black females almost 30,000.

Overall, the 2005 prison labor pool derived from the more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., which included federal, state and territorial prisons; local jails; immigration, customs enforcement and military facilities; Indian Country jails; and juvenile facilities.

America’s malevolent social policy of racially selective mass incarceration is so ubiquitous it is hard to believe there ever was a civil rights movement. Because corporate media has become privatized and commercialized, the press has confined most of its “reporting” to government and celebrity press releases. The Paris Hilton affair is no different; it would seem the corporate media is trying to spin this story into judge vs. sheriff issue instead of reporting sentencing disparities between the haves and have-nots.

Did Hilton suffer from a mental break down? I am pretty sure she did, but it is hard to feel sorry for a rich spoiled brat who has never worked, never done anything that could justify her being famous. The only mental breakdown this young woman experienced is a culture shock of leaving the partying lifestyle she is used to having for jail. It is also hard to feel sorry for a person who believes her “perfect world” means she is above the law and everyone. Now that her “perfect world” is shredded into pieces, maybe – just maybe – she will think twice before looking down upon people who attend public schools or who are from the ghettos, the barrios or any other ethnic enclaves. And maybe – just maybe – she will think twice before she hurls another racial epithet because they do not live life as a socialite.

What is disturbing about this celebrity-obsessed nation is that people care more about her mental state than the true innocent victims who are suffering in our concentration camps, such as Suzi Hazahza and her 23-year-old sister Mirvat who are subjugated to humiliating full body-cavity searches repeatedly at the hands of prison guards, or the children who are denied their childhood at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center and the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility.

It is ironic that the day Judge Sauer sent Paris Hilton back to jail happened to be the 58th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell got it right: Some are more equal than others.

Inequality was the price of civilization. … Even if it was still necessary for human beings to do different kinds of work, it was no longer necessary for them to live at different social or economic levels. Therefore, from the point of view of the new groups who were on the point of seizing power, human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted. … The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation. And in the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years — imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations-not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.

Equal justice? Not in this country, not when the few have the resources to “get out of jail free,” while the “ethnic other” have to constantly face an angry crowd amongst the right-wing media and xenophobic anti-immigration nativists demanding their deportation for similar type of offenses as Paris Hilton committed.

Justice might have prevailed now that Paris Hilton has been sent back to prison, but for the rest, equal justice is just an illusion in the Land of the Incarcerated.

7 replies »

  1. “I am really shocked at the resources which are clearly being devoted to cover the whole Paris Hilton affair.”

    Well, thanks for your contribution for solving this problem.

  2. I do find it interesting that you focused on that one sentence to show that I am no different from everybody. But you don’t have to be so smug about it either. The fact is people keep reading about her, they can not help themselves. You certainly did, you clicked on it and took the time to commit.

    See it doesn’t matter what is written about her, people will read it. I just took advantage of current situation to expand on a topic that is normally ignored under normal circumstances – the disparities in the criminal-justice system.

  3. You pointed out that the corporate media would much rather make the Hilton story a personal one about Paris Hilton, or about judge vs. sheriff instead of about the more important and enduring issue of haves vs. have nots.

    This is, I believe, the central failing of our news outlets…the constant focus on celebrities and personalities instead of on the social, economic, and legal issues that lay the foundation for all the problems in this country.

    However, there is one objection I have. I don’t believe that the Hilton affair and her lenient sentence is a racial issue, as much as it is a structural one. You rattled off the very true statistics about black incarceration rates.

    But those are a consequence of economic problems–consequences of the divergent opportunities of the haves and have nots in this country.

  4. Paris Hilton’s legal issues have become truly newsworthy because they have exposed long-standing inequalities in our legal system. Rod, in a comment above, hits the nail on the head by calling “the constant focus on celebrities and personalities” the “central failing” of the media. But this is true so very often. In story after story, news segment after news segment, invariably the wrong question is asked or the wrong tact is taken.

    In one of the few pieces I’ve watched that mentioned class, the reporter wondered aloud if people who were happy about Hilton’s return to jail were engaging in “class warfare.” There was no mention of the disparate treatment by the legal system. Oh yeah, and a commentator on the show also stated, profoundly, that the judge presiding over the case was “a jerk” for issuing such a draconian sentence.

    In an age when Nancy Grace is considered a legal analyst, and a Senator who was once a former State AG (Cornyn) can get away with a statement expressing his understanding of why some judges get attacked by madmen, I suppose it’s just a matter of time until someone begins demanding: “let’s kill all the lawyers.”

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