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The Nonsense Factory- book review

I enjoyed Mr. Gibney's first book, A Generation of Psychopaths, about how the baby boomers have messed things up, so I was eager to pick up this book about how the legal system has messed things up.

It does not disappoint.

According to the author, our legal system is a huge, unwieldy and expensive mess, and a lot of the people who run it are given too much power without any real accountability.

- Congressmen who write the laws don't bother to read what they vote on anymore because their jobs have become too overwhelming, counting on staffers and lobbyists to tell them what to do. Lobbyists spend over $30 billion every year buying influence, and the deck is stacked in big business's favor, 30:1. Congress also tends to avoid any kind of real changes, depending on the president and courts to keep things running.

- Bureaucrats who interpret, apply and enforce the laws are a shadow branch of government not accountable to the people they serve.

- Judges who enforce the laws are not always trained in law and with lifetime tenure not always able to handle the pressures of the job as they age. Their appointments and elections are political and their rulings not always consistent.

- Prosecutors have enormous discretion on what laws they can enforce, depending on public pressures and their own beliefs. With thousands of state and federal statutes, no one knows what the crimes all are. A stunning 96% of prosecutions end up in plea bargains according to this book, and jury trials, while supposedly guaranteed by Miranda, are exceedingly rare these days.

- Police have the power of the state behind them and a lot of discretion about who to stop and when. Racial profiling is a huge problem that results in uneven enforcement of the laws.

- Arbitrators are a secretive court of private justice that almost all of us are bound to by our employers and financial services. These quasi-judges are not always well-trained and their proceedings are confidential, so no one knows what any of the disputes are about. Class-action arbitration is usually impossible, making this avenue not economical for small judgements.

In addition, Gibney roasts law schools, saying they are too expensive, too based in theory, and that they churn out too many graduates, a large percentage of whom can't pass the bar exam or become employed. Because of this expensive legal education, lawyers charge $200/hour and up legal billings, leading to a $260-$440 Billion dollar price tag to all of us, mostly passed on in taxes and costs of living.

Evidence in reality is little like it is portrayed in tv cop shows. Things like fingerprints, facial recognition, fiber analysis, DNA, and witnesses are all flawed and can only present a range of probability that they point in one direction. The best evidence today is live video, but that can't show everything either.

The author goes through our detention system, from prisons to jails to probation, and our record of recidivism is worse than most European countries. Plus the failed war on drugs has overloaded our prisons so that we have the highest per capital prison population in the world.

The chapter on what we can do about all this is depressingly short of details, other than to rely on the public to vote in better legislators and judges. There are some better examples of criminal justice systems out there, and at some point it would make American a better place if we could learn from them.

One final tip- if a policeman starts harassing you unfairly in your opinion, bring up section 1983 and it may stop his or her behavior. That takes it up several levels.

All in all, a good and informative book.

Four of five stars

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