Stephen Elliott: Paris, The Hero

Fiction author and legal journalist Stephen Elliott explains how and why Paris Hilton has drawn valuable attention to the inequalities of the California justice system.

Paris, The Hero
Stephen Elliott
The Huffington Post
Mon Jun 11, 8:35 PM ET

Sometimes I think Paris Hilton is a hero. I watch the news and I see the willowy blonde, staring from the squad car window, face like a painting. Then I hear about over-crowded jails, a corrupt Los Angeles Sheriff, a two-tiered legal system. It doesn't bother me that it takes Paris Hilton to draw attention to these issues. Well, it does, but this is America and you have to accept certain things.

If anything, the Paris Hilton story breaks all the rules of celebrity journalism in that it is actually about something. It's about money and the kind of privilege money can buy, the kind of things that aren't supposed to be for sale, like justice. It's about the California penal system, broken under Pete Wilson and Gray Davis regimes where cheap slogans like "tough on crime" took over the space reserved for intelligent analysis and were rammed through the state legislature or put on ballot initiatives where they became law. Pete Wilson was going to run for president and Gray Davis' prime constituency was the prison guards union followed by the victims rights groups. If you were to visit a prison like the LA County Prison in Lancaster you would see medium security prisoners, most drug offenders, stuck in endless bunks in what was supposed to be recreational areas. I visited Lancaster in 2005. There were only a few feet before the walls, a bank of television screens, open toilets, guard with a gun walking on a metal plank twenty feet above. The bunks were in two or three tiers and the prisoners were only outside one hour a day. These people are serving years in the most horrendous, over-crowded conditions imaginable. And it is costing tax payers huge sums of money.

There is a PR campaign underway to paint Paris Hilton's punishment as harsh, as if she was being penalized for being a celebrity. Sheriff Baca even pointed to her harsh sentence when defending his decision to release her after three days. In fact, the sentence isn't harsh. This was not her first time being pulled over driving recklessly since her license had been suspended. She was given repeated warnings and pulled over in at least three separate counties. She had a signed document in her glove compartment stating she knew she was not allowed to drive. She had the resources to hire a full-time driver. Most people in her situation are forced to drive on a suspended license just to get to work, thanks to General Motors early dismantling of the LA public transit system. There are those that say the Sheriff was within his jurisdiction to release Paris early, but surely he could have found another prisoner to release, one whose sentence didn't specifically state that she could not serve any part of her sentence under house arrest.

This is about class warfare of the kind the rich have been waging on the poor. This is about separate and unequal. This is about a generation of poor stripped of political power in jail or on parole. And Paris Hilton has got America talking about these things.

Paris has become an unlikely hero. She didn't even try. Her well-cared for golden hair is shining a bright spotlight on the ever increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Perhaps when Paris is released for real she will travel the country speaking to these issues. She'll lobby congress against mandatory sentencing guidelines, three strikes laws that target non-violent criminals, the absurdity of ballot initiatives that cost more money while removing layers of judicial oversight -- such as the absurdly named Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act- AKA Proposition 21.

So I want to take this moment to thank Paris Hilton for bringing these important issues back to the American conversation and the media for its excellent coverage of the events as they unfolded. Can a person be a hero even when they don't mean to be? Even while crying for their mother, taken away in chains? I guess it depends on your definition, but I don't see why not.