U.S. judges admit to jailing children for money:

Two judges pleaded guilty on Thursday to accepting more than $2.6 million from a private youth detention center in Pennsylvania in return for giving hundreds of youths and teenagers long sentences…..

When someone is sent to a detention center, the company running the facility receives money from the county government to defray the cost of incarceration. So as more children were sentenced to the detention center, PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare received more money from the government, prosecutors said.

Teenagers who came before Ciavarella in juvenile court often were sentenced to detention centers for minor offenses that would typically have been classified as misdemeanors, according to the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit group…..

One 17-year-old boy was sentenced to three months’ detention for being in the company of another minor caught shoplifting.

Others were given similar sentences for “simple assault” resulting from a schoolyard scuffle that would normally draw a warning, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Law Center said.

The Constitution guarantees the right to legal representation in U.S. courts. But many of the juveniles appeared before Ciavarella without an attorney because they were told by the probation service that their minor offenses didn’t require one.

Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, estimated that of approximately 5,000 juveniles who came before Ciavarella from 2003 and 2006, between 1,000 and 2,000 received excessively harsh detention sentences….

This horrifying but unsurprising story raises a lot of specific political questions: about judicial corruption, the war on crime, the war on drugs, civil rights, civil liberties, our increasingly authoritarian legal system, the for-profit prison industry, the political influence of prison-guard unions, and the racism of a growth industry paying mostly-white people to restrict the freedom of mostly-black people.

But it also raises a question more important than any of these, or all of them put together: what has America become? The story above sounds like something that happened under colonial rule, or in a corrupt third world country, or in an authoritarian dictatorship. But it happened in America.

And neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party wants to change anything. The Republicans think that our present system is fine. (They caught the bad judges, didn’t they? And we need to be tough on crime!). And the Democratic Party leadership, at best, refuses to touch these questions. We need to be tough on crime!

That’s why it feels good to be a troll now instead of a Democrat.

When George W. Bush said “America doesn’t torture”, when everyone knew that America does torture, everybody understood what he meant. He was like the enforcer waving a baseball bat saying “I hear you’ve been going around calling me a thug. I’m not a thug, OK?” Bush’s smirky taunts were one of the things that most endeared him to his authoritarian base. What he was telling us was “Whatcha think you’re gonna to do about it, buddy?”

It’s true that when some people say “America doesn’t torture”, they mean something entirely different.  What they’re saying is “Yes, America is torturing right now, but that’s not the real America.” And if this affirmation is accompanied by an active determination to put a stop to American torture, this is a perfectly fine bit of aspirational rhetoric. But if nothing really changes, it just becomes denial and bad faith.

I came of age in 1967, and more than half the time since then Nixon, Reagan, or George W. Bush has been President. All three of them did a lot of harm, and the damage done by Nixon and Reagan was never even half undone by their successors. Nobody knows what will happen under Obama, but he doesn’t seem to be setting his sights very high, and those of us who supported him are at risk of helping ratify George W. Bush’s transformation of America — by setting our own sights too low, and by pretending that the small victories we end up winning are much bigger than they really are.

We really have to consider the possibility that America has been transformed, and that Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush are what America really is now. A significant chunk of normal Americans would laugh gleefully at the story I posted, under the assumption that it was black kids who were being put in jail.  Many other normal Americans would automatically claim, without any  evidence, that this event was a rare exception and just a single incident. Only a minority of Americans would be willing to acknowledge the terrible significance of the episode. Bad governments make bad people, and conversely.

Many citizens of other states do realize how bad things are here. Maybe America has become unexceptional, just one state among all the others. Maybe, as so many states have done before,  we’re becoming one of the bad guys of history.

And if the U.S. goes into economic decline while militarily remaining the most powerful nation the world has ever seen (as seems very possible) — what happens then?