The holiday season is about setting intentions, and working throughout the year to see them come to fruition. Every year, I set out my list of wishes for reforms in the criminal justice arena and then do my best to help make them a reality by shining a light on injustice, and by pushing for improvement wherever it can be found. From ending solitary confinement to stopping prison abuse to reducing lengthy prison terms for non-violent offenses, there is much to be done. This year I’ve narrowed my list to just three issues that I hope to tackle in the New Year. Please join me in sharing your top criminal justice priorities.
Identify, Release and Compensate the wrongly convicted.
2,144 innocent people have been exonerated. Although they have lost years, and sometimes decades, of their lives in prison for crimes they did not commit, the exonerated are the lucky ones. Literally thousands more innocent people remain behind prison bars, locked in a nightmare that for them may never end.
The truth is that we need to do a better job of preventing wrongful convictions at the front end. Police need to objectively follow evidence, not engage in tunnel vision, and follow best practices for interrogation and identification. Prosecutors need to stop relying on unreliable informants, playing fast and loose with exculpatory evidence, and forcing convictions over doing justice. Judges need to do a better job at stopping racial bias in jury selection, vetting experts, and ensuring the accuracy and fairness of the proceedings.
But it also bears noting that the standard of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” not “beyond all doubt.” Because we allow for the possibility of error, we need to be prepared when mistakes occur. Simply stated, we need to do a much better job of helping the exonerated get back on their feet. Eighteen states still have no compensation statute at all, and other states have statutes that offer very limited assistance to the wrongly convicted. In Montana, for instance, if a person is exonerated by DNA evidence only, they can receive a free college education. While that may be better than nothing at all, it is certainly not enough. We can and need to do better for the wrongly convicted.
End the Death Penalty Once and for All
The death penalty is on life-support. Yes, 31 states have the death penalty on the books. But only a small handful of states are still executing people. In 2017, Harris County, Texas, traditionally the nation’s leader in death sentences and executions, capital punishment has slowed to a near halt, with no new death sentences and no executions. Execution drugs are hard to come by because most pharmaceutical companies don’t want to supply them for executions, and states are resorting to the most bizarre secrecy laws to find a supplier. Enough is enough.
The “worst of the worst” defendants don’t wind up on death row. Rather, it is simply the (bad) luck of the draw. The death penalty is for the poorest defendants, or defendants who kill white victims, or defendants who kill in Texas or Oklahoma rather than in states without the death penalty.
While most of the people on death row committed murder, most people who commit murder are not on death row. Indeed, a significant majority of people convicted of murder are serving life sentences. Life sentences allow us to correct mistakes: 160 people have been exonerated from death row.
The death penalty is an anachronistic hold-out to an era that is over. It’s time to pull the plug, and dedicate our resources elsewhere.
Support State and Local Re-entry Programming
An overwhelming majority of people who go to prison, serve their terms and return to their communities. People often leave prison penniless, with no identification, and no ability to apply for the limited governmental support they may be entitled to receive. They often face thousands of dollars in child support arrears or interest from old fines. Saddled by the stigma of a criminal history, these people face insurmountable obstacles in finding stable housing and employment. They are unfamiliar with technology, and have limited marketable skills. Is it really any wonder that recidivism rates are so high?
If we are serious about lowering recidivism rates once and for all, then we must be serious about programs that help people reintegrate into society upon completion of their prison sentences. That process should start the moment a person enters prison, with educational programs that enable the incarcerated to obtain G.E.D.s, college education, and relevant job training. People who are incarcerated should have help in obtaining the necessary identification that they need before they are released. Because prisons are dark, noisy, violent places, in which people are routinely traumatized and become institutionalized, the incarcerated should receive counseling that helps them deal with the conditions of confinement and develop more positive behaviors in anticipation of their eventual release. We also need to support programs that work to reduce the stigma of criminal convictions.
Investments in prison programming now will yield significant dividends in the form of community safety and repairing the harm caused by our overly punitive system of mass incarceration. Let’s end the cycle of re-incarceration by improving reentry prospects for everyone involved in the criminal justice system.
Here’s to a more accurate, reasonable and fair criminal justice system in 2018!