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John Oliver’s Year in Criminal Justice

A roundup of clips and one-liners from one of the most vocal critics of our prison system.

On his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight," comedian John Oliver has consistently tackled — in deeply reported, 20-minute segments — the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. And there’s no subject too weedy or without the potential for a good punchline: he has covered subjects ranging from bail and modern-day debtors prisons, to mandatory minimums and overworked public defenders, and he has employed everything from puppets to “Law & Order” spoofs to make his points. In case you’re still catching up, here are some of his best segments from his 2015 coverage of criminal justice.

Elected Judges, Feb. 23

Oliver provided his perspective on the uniquely American practice of electing judges, and the problems that come when corporations and political interests fund their campaigns. Included are several of the most cringe-worthy campaign ads for which the jokes really write themselves.

Bail, June 7

Oliver contrasts Robert Durst’s experience with bail with that of a low-income Brooklyn family, and weaves from the subjects of bail bondsmen to bounty hunters to the way high bails are used as leverage to get defendants to plead guilty.

Mandatory Minimums, July 26

Oliver traces the rise and fall of the War on Drugs, from the “Just Say No” panic to the current bipartisan coalition advocating for sentencing reform — but notes that for many prisoners, the damage is already done. About a man given 55 years for gun possession and selling marijuana, Oliver says, “If my math is right here, this low-level pot dealer received the exact same sentence as an airplane-hijacking, child-raping terrorist — a person so evil, I legitimately don’t know if one has ever existed.”

Municipal Violations, March 22

Most are surprised to learn that not paying tickets can result in jail time and ballooning fines. In a case out of Ferguson, Mo., one woman ended up owing $1,000 in fines and fees for $150 worth of unpaid parking tickets. “Even people stocking hotel mini bars are thinking, That markup seems a little high.”

Public Defenders, Sept. 13

“Access to a lawyer is supposed to be a constitutional right, and it is increasingly under threat,” Oliver says, detailing the human toll of underfunded indigent defense and overworked attorneys. To make that point, he segues to a “Law & Order” spoof, in which cops say a revised and all-too-real version of the Miranda rights: “You have the right to an attorney.… [who] may have 300 other cases … [and] a total of seven minutes to prepare your defense… Basically, you’re fucked.”

Prisoner Reentry, Nov. 8

Oliver’s latest is his most intimate, featuring a conversation with Bilal Chapman, who served 10 years in prison on a drug conviction but who no longer wants to be defined as a “former prisoner.” Oliver asks, “what three things about you would you like people to know?” Chapman replies, “I can grow tomatoes.”

Bonus Segment: Prison, July 20, 2014

This one is actually from 2014, but Oliver sings about prison with the cast of Sesame Street. Enjoy.

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