America is crazy about crime. We obsess over it. We lock people up at a rate unknown in the rest of the industrialized world, taking entire neighborhoods of young men into custody and leaving devastation behind both in their communities and in their lives. We do this at a time when violent crime is at an all time low, and while our standards of morality for our leadership continue to drop. "It's no Watergate" is the cheerful cry of the right upon learning that a man extremely close to the vice president has been indicted. "Criminalization of politics!" they say when Tom DeLay is investigated for laundering money. From whence this dichotomy?
It's about power and class, of course, as most inequities in today's America are. People like the syrup guy are seen as overstepping their rights and privileges in society, and society needs to push back hard. I'm not saying it's okay to steal maple syrup, it's not, but the fact that you can be put away for life? The guy may be a nuisance to society but he's not exactly a menace, and one man's life is worth a lot more than protecting property rights for a sweet breakfast topping. Meanwhile the DeLays of the world are seen as already being big winners and men who have few boundaries in life. When they step over the boundaries of the law it's because the laws were too complicated or exacting for big men like them. Tom DeLay doesn't have time to worry about the intricacies of campaign finance rules. Tom DeLay is a fucking BIGSHOT. The same thing applies to corporate criminals. Kenneth Lay and his gang ruined thousands more lives than the Maple Syrup Bandit, but most of them are still out there living the high life and nobody's talking about life sentences. Occasionally a corporate criminal will get a defacto life sentence because they're usually older when they get caught, but often it'll get bargained down or cut through parole or whatever. Most of the time they don't go to jail in the first place.
In my opinion it's far worse for someone with a lot of power to break the law than it is for someone who has virtually nothing (We're not talking about violent crime here. Violent crime is a whole different animal.) The guy who the system has worked for has more interest in preserving that system then the guy whose ass it's kicked repeatedly. Of course that's true to a degree, but the guy who the system has elevated often disdains it and doesn't want to be limited by silly rules that apply to others. Thus corporations illegally dump toxic waste into community water supplies and refuse to clean it up, or CEOs plunder coffers to support lifestyles even more lavish than those to which they've become accustomed. Neither has to do it to survive or even thrive, but when you're at the top of the heap it's often annoying to have to play by other people's rules.
There are deep flaws in the current American system. We have a country which spends the most money on health care in the world, and yet buys relatively little with it, and almost nothing for the poor. We have a government that seems to have only two major goals, making sure the rich can pay as little as politically feasible to support it and spending money it doesn't have to pay off political favors. We're in an unjust nebulous war halfway across the globe and all we can do is look back and try to figure out how we got there rather than formulating an actual plan for getting out. Our place in the world is slipping, our wage gap is rising, and our fundamental weaknesses are being exposed. In such trying times people seek an answer. One of the answers offered is to get tougher on the "Bad elements." Lock up the maple syrup thief forever, he's the reason society's threatening to capsize. Keep poor women from getting abortions, that'll teach them some responsibility. Strip search a ten year old girl when you only have a warrant for her father, she's probably a bad seed anyway.
These answers lead nowhere. They're just ways of mollifying the masses and making it seem like something's being done. What we need is true reform. We need a top-down makeover of society. Trickle down justice. Leadership that seeks to use power wisely rather than abuse it. Long prison terms haven't made us a better country or a more just one. Making sure that jail is a right of passage for many young African Americans doesn't give them the tools they need to thrive. Treating petty criminals more harshly than those who steal more than they could dream of doesn't make an example of them.
Mistreating the poor and the petty is like kicking the dog after your boss treats you badly. It's not going to make your boss behave any better, and eventually the dog just might bite back.