Recent events related to the justice system in America have led me to ponder how we're doing as a country.
The first was the HSBC settlement, where the British banking corporation HSBC "admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act)." Also, "some of HSBC's Saudi and Bangladeshi clients had terrorist ties, according to a Senate investigation." The US Justice Department has elected not to prosecute. The settlement deal was a fine of $1.9 billion, some shuffling of the leadership, and a few slaps on the wrist in the form of partially deferred executive bonuses. One analyst says the fine is about five weeks' worth of profit.
The other was the suicide of Aaron Swartz, a decision possibly swayed by what some are calling predatory, disproportional prosecution for his alleged crimes of downloading copyrighted academic papers with an intent to distribute them for free. The disturbing thing about this case is that the victim of this crime (JSTOR) were not interested in pressing charges, but the same US DOJ decided to prosecute, and we get the feeling it was to "make an example" of Aaron. He faced up to 35 years in prison (more according to some sources) and $1 million in fines if convicted, more than the maximum sentence for some heinous crimes like bank robbery, selling child pornography, selling slaves, or giving nuclear weapons aid to terrorists. (Granted, there are many charges stacked to get such a high sentence, but consider his actual actions compared to the actions of someone who committed just one count of those crimes. And yes, there was a potential plea deal, but it doesn't sound all that great.)
In both cases, real crimes were committed (I'm trying not to hero-worship Mr. Swartz as some are doing), but the contrast between the punishments is chilling. The messages are that if you're the little guy challenging entrenched institutions and their intellectual-property-based revenue streams, you will be crushed like a bug with no mercy and at the prosecutor's initiative; if you're a powerful institution and you monetarily aid drug dealers and terrorists, you get a slap on the wrist and America gets a little pocket change from your fine. Crime does literally pay: if you can make enough in a decade of laundering the money of criminals and enemies of the state to pay the fines when you get caught, it's worth it, and nobody even goes to court, let alone prison.
There are people powerful enough to be above the law, but anyone who challenges those types of elites will be obliterated. There is no "justice for all" in America. There is no sign that this will be changing soon, either.
P.S. If you still need convincing, look at the difference between a bank's punishment for helping drug dealers to the tune of millions, verses the punishments given to random people on the street for carrying drugs.