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What Paris' prison stay says about U.S. "justice"

July 20, 2007 | Page 6

"MOM, IT'S not right!" cried Paris Hilton as she was ordered back to jail, just a day after she had been released. Mom and dad, however, could not get her out of this one.

This all began when the hotel heiress, better known for dancing on bar tops with friends in West Hollywood, was pulled over after another extravagant night on the town. In September 2006, she was arrested for suspicion of drunk driving. The court suspended her driver's license, gave her 36 months of probation plus a $1,500 fine, and ordered her to attend an alcohol-education program.

Refusing to let "the Man" cramp her style, Paris didn't attend the alcohol-education program, and she continued driving around Los Angeles. On January 15, she was pulled over for driving with a suspended license. Then on February 27, she was pulled over for driving 70 miles per hour in a 35-miles-per-hour zone, without her lights on.

Of course, Paris could have avoided all of this by getting her chauffer to drive her around. But this wasn't about the necessity to drive, but Paris' sense of entitlement and belief that the laws don't apply to her. Then, the LA prosecutors threw the book at her.

On May 4, Judge Michael Sauer sentenced Paris to 45 days in jail on the charge of violating her probation. The sentence was reduced to 23 days for "good behavior"--a bit odd, since at that point she had not served a single day of jail. Eventually, she did begin to serve time, but the reality of jail was too much for her. Within three days, Sheriff Lee Baca released her, citing an "undisclosed medical condition."

Baca is notorious for his jail's harsh treatment of the poor and favoritism toward the rich and famous--including Mel Gibson after his anti-Semitic drunk-driving tirade.

In fact, a lawsuit has been filed against Baca by a 51-year-old African American woman who was treated far worse than Paris in the same facility. The woman is a U.S. Army veteran and double amputee, who in a case of mistaken identity, was jailed and had her prosthetic legs taken away from her. She was forced to crawl to the toilet and shower, and denied the cancer medication she needed.

Paris' release led to a public power struggle between Baca and Sauer, in which the judge reasserted the authority of the courts over the sheriff and sent Paris back to jail.

When Paris was first released after three days, denunciations of the injustice came from around the country--from civil rights groups, inmate advocates and ordinary people. One study found that most people didn't know why Paris was sent to jail, but felt that she should stay there.

Which is why I was surprised to read some commentators on the left, who have a confused position on this story. On the Counterpunch Web site, Richard Rhames went so far as to demand a pardon for Paris, calling her a scapegoat for larger crimes. In short, he wondered why we are trying Paris before we try war criminals like Bush and Cheney.

Fair point, but with this logic, there would be a moratorium on punishing the rich until (if or when) Bush ever sees a day in court. If anyone uses this case to say that "the system works" and punishment is served equally to everyone in society, we should reject it, of course.

To paraphrase one civil rights leader, "Rather than asking, why don't the rich get treated as badly as the poor? We should be asking, why don't the poor get treated as well as rich? That's the type of equality we want."
Kurt Krueger, Los Angeles

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