Category Archives: Criminal Justice Reform

Signs of Intelligent Life in the Colorado Senate

Several members of the Colorado Senate introduced a bill yesterday that would reduce drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, favoring drug treatment programs over incarceration in state prisons.

Lynn Bartels reporting for The Denver Post writes:

Senate Bill 2012-163 deals with drug offenders who primarily are users and addicts rather than dealers, and enhances their access to treatment.

“We have so many people throughout this country who are the casualties of a failed war on drugs,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. “And in one sense, when you get a felony, not only do you get a criminal penalty, but what you have is a sentence to life without employment.”
During a news conference at the Capitol, Levy presented the bill with Sens. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, and Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield.

[…]

“Let’s be clear. This is not legalization. This is not decriminalization,” Mitchell said. “This is simply a smarter approach to fighting the evils of drug abuse in our society.”

While this bill doesn’t go as far as I would like, this is certainly a step in the right direction. I’m not a big fan of forced drug treatment programs but it’s a far better alternative than a felony conviction that never goes away. In addition to this proposed legislation, Coloradans will have an opportunity to legalize marijuana (with the same regulations as alcohol) in November. If both of these become Colorado law, this would be a pretty significant blow to the war on (some) drugs and the prison industrial complex IMO.

Will either of these reforms pass? It’s hard for me to say but I’m a little skeptical. Still, the fact that these sorts of reforms are being proposed outside of libertarian debate societies by people who can actually change the criminal code is quite exciting and quite encouraging.

Rick Santorum is Not as Pro-Family as He Would Have Us Believe

If someone were to pose the question: “Among the candidates running for president, who would you say describes himself as the most ‘pro-family’?”

I suspect that most people would say Rick Santorum and for good reason. To Santorum, the decline of the traditional, nuclear family is the root cause for every problem facing America right now. Even (perhaps especially) individual rights take a back seat to his family values.

While I obviously disagree with this view, I don’t think there is any question that children have a better chance of becoming productive, successful adults when they grow up in a healthy and loving family environment than those who do not. Whether such an environment requires both a father and mother is subject to debate (and maybe a topic for another time).

With the premise that Rick Santorum is the great defender of the family in mind, a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) asked the former senator a very good question as he was wading through the crowd shaking hands:

“As a champion of family values and keeping America strong, would you continue to destroy families by sending nonviolent drug offenders to prison?”

To which Santorum responds:

“Uh…wow…the federal government doesn’t do that.”

Jacob Sullum’s response is right on:

“That will come as a surprise to the nearly 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison, who account for almost half of all inmates. (Another 400,000 or so are in state prisons and local jails.) Does Santorum think only violent drug offenders go to federal prison? There is no such requirement.”

Perhaps Santorum should take a moment to visit someone from Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and find out if tougher federal drug laws are destroying families.

This is a perfect opening for the Ron Paul campaign to point this out to his rival who is obviously clueless on this issue. Between Rick Santorum’s continued support for the war on (some) drugs and his eagerness to start up a war* with Iran we cannot afford, I think it’s time to question his pro-family bona fides.

Related: Reforming America’s Prison System: The Time Has Come

» Read more

Institute for Justice’s Bone Marrow Donor Compensation Legal Challenge Prevails

Here’s a follow up to a story I linked back in 2009 concerning the Institute for Justice’s legal challenge to the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 and the act’s applicability to bone marrow transplants. This is very good news for the roughly 3,000 Americans who die every year while waiting to find a bone marrow match:

Arlington, Va.—The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today issued a unanimous opinion granting victory to cancer patients and their supporters from across the nation in a landmark constitutional challenge brought against the U.S. Attorney General. The lawsuit, filed by the Institute for Justice on behalf of cancer patients, their families, an internationally renowned marrow-transplant surgeon, and a California nonprofit group, seeks to allow individuals to create a pilot program that would encourage more bone-marrow donations by offering modest compensation—such as a scholarship or housing allowance—to donors. The program had been blocked by a federal law, the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), which makes compensating donors of these renewable cells a major felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Under today’s decision, this pilot program will be perfectly legal, provided the donated cells are taken from a donor’s bloodstream rather than the hip. (Approximately 70 percent of all bone marrow donations are offered through the arm in a manner similar to donating whole blood.) Now, as a result of this legal victory, not only will the pilot programs the plaintiffs looked to create be considered legal, but any form of compensation for marrow donors would be legal within the boundaries of the Ninth Circuit, which includes California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and various other U.S. territories.

[…]

Rowes concluded, “This case isn’t about medicine; everyone agrees that bone marrow transplants save lives. This case is about whether individuals can make choices about compensating someone or receiving compensation for making a bone marrow donation without the government stopping them.”

Tim Masters, Anthony Graves, and Cory Maye Each Receive Some Semblance of Justice

More often than not, when I write about the criminal justice system generally or write about specific cases the news is very bad. This time I have not one, not two, but three very positive developments in three separate cases that have to this point been very negative.

#1 Larimer County Commissioners will Not Cap Compensation Tim Masters or Other Wrongfully Convicted in its Jurisdiction
Larimer County, CO like most governments at all levels is looking for ways to save money to deal with budget shortfalls. But is capping the damages for those the county has wrongfully convicted a reasonable way to address some of this shortfall? A majority of the commissioners say ‘no.’ Kevin Duggan writing for The Coloradan reports:

A proposal to limit the compensation a wrongfully incarcerated person could receive from a local government got a firm thumbs-down Tuesday from the Larimer County commissioners hours before Tim Masters was formally exonerated for the 1987 murder of Peggy Hettrick.

With the Masters case in mind, the commissioners said they would not support a suggestion from county staff to seek state legislation that would cap damages someone who was wrongly convicted and jailed may recover.

[…]

Commissioner Steve Johnson said he understood the goal of saving taxpayer money, but a cap on damages wasn’t the way to do that.

The best way to avoid paying out for wrongful incarcerations is to not let them happen, he said. Those in the judicial system have to make every effort to ensure innocent people are not convicted, he said.

“It just seems to me that having a high award possibility is almost like a deterrent to law enforcement and everybody else,” he said.

Masters received a combined $10 million settlement from Larimer County and the city of Fort Collins last year to settle a lawsuit over his prosecution and conviction for the 1987 slaying of Hettrick. Masters served 10 years in prison, but his conviction was vacated in 2008 based on DNA evidence.

#2 Texas Gov. Rick Perry Does the Right thing by Signing a Bill to Compensate $1.4 Million to Wrongfully Convicted Anthony Graves
After spending 18 years in prison (10 years on death row) Anthony Graves was denied a modest compensation of $1.4 million from the State of Texas. As I wrote in February, Graves was denied the compensation because the Texas Comptroller’s office determined that Graves was not entitled to the compensation because the phrase “actual innocence” appeared nowhere in the judge’s ruling that reached that obvious conclusion. To Gov. Rick Perry’s credit, just over a week ago he reversed this injustice by signing a bill that would grant Graves the full amount of the compensation.

Perry on Friday signed a bill that will compensate Graves for his imprisonment, including more than a decade on death row.

With Perry’s signature, the legislation takes effect immediately.

State law allows $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment, tax-free.

[…]

A bill “relating to claims for compensation for wrongful imprisonment and group health benefits coverage for persons wrongfully imprisoned” — specifically addressing Graves’ case — was adopted by the Texas Legislature with no opposition during its regular session this year.

Kudos to Gov. Perry and the Texas Legislature for doing the right thing for Graves and other wrongfully convicted Texans.

And now last but certainly not least…

#3 Cory Maye Accepts Plea Deal; Will be Released Soon
The final chapter of the Cory Maye case is nearly closed. After spending nearly 10 years in prison, Cory Maye will finally be released in a matter of days. Maye accepted a plea deal to a lesser charge of “culpable negligence” manslaughter which carries a 10 year sentence but will be given full credit for the time he has served.

While this is not the ideal, just outcome this is probably about the best that could be hoped for. Yes the double standard between non-cops shooting cops by mistake vs. cops shooting non-cops by mistake is extremely frustrating but this is the world we live in. From a letter Maye provided Radley Balko to share with his supporters Maye explains:

I realize a lot of people are going to wonder why I accepted a plea. We just felt that regardless of the facts and evidence that pointed in my favor, there was the possibility that one or more jurors could not see it my way, causing a mistrial. That could leave me sitting here another nine months or more, or longer if it keeps repeating that way.

This is Mississippi, and some people refuse to let go of their old ways from the old days. I just didn’t want to put my family through any more heartache, and didn’t want to have to wait any longer. It was take a chance of a mistrial, or grab hold of my future and be the man/father/friend that I can be, and that my family loves and misses.

Given the shenanigans the prosecutors and their witnesses got away with in the original trial, one can hardly blame Maye for taking the deal, securing his release, and getting as far away from Mississippi as possible.

The Cory Maye case is the case is one that has transformed how I view the criminal justice system over recent years. The idea that an individual could be convicted and put on death row for defending his home against who he believed to be unlawful intruders who turned out to be police conducting a no-knock raid made me question everything I thought I knew about the system. As I followed this case at The Agitator, I was introduced to many other similar cases of injustice and concluded that our system is far too prone to error for me to continue supporting the notion of the death penalty. I’m hopeful that many others were similarly touched by this case and that this will eventually lead to reforming the system for the better.

As these three cases demonstrate, justice may not be possible but with people in high places doing the right thing (often from pressure from regular concerned citizens) a semblance of justice is possible.

Last Call to Meet Our $500 Goal/Life After Exoneration

Disclaimer: The views expressed here at The Liberty Papers either by the post authors or views found in the comments section do not necessarily reflect the views of The Innocence Project nor its affiliates.

In support of our fundraising efforts for The Innocence Project, I had tried to dedicate at least one post per week over the last four weeks to the cause of criminal justice reform – many of which are the very reforms The Innocence Project are working to bring about. With today being the last day of this fundraising campaign, 228 “Innocence Partners” combined efforts has raised nearly $15,000 of the $20,000 target. As of this writing, you readers have already donated $375 – 75% of our $500 goal! Thanks to everyone who has donated so far or plans to donate. Remember: your donations are 100% tax deductible.

Believe it or not, in the time we joined this campaign nearly a month ago to help The Innocence Project, 2 individuals have been exonerated as a direct result of The Innocence Project’s help!

In case you are wondering what $20,000 can accomplish (the overall campaign’s goal), this is how far The Innocence Project says the money can go:

• Pay for post-conviction DNA testing that may prove innocence for 4 clients.

• Provide 16 exonerees with basic needs including food, rent, and transportation for the first month after release.

• Cover the costs to send 20 exonerees to testify before state legislatures to reform the criminal justice system.

• Send 25 local advocates to an Innocence Project training to learn how to advance wrongful conviction reforms in their state.

• Allow a staff attorney to represent 5 clients.

• Enable staff to advocate for wrongful conviction reforms in 6 states.

In this series of posts, I covered some of the reforms and issues The Innocence Project has been trying to bring to light such as compensation for the wrongfully convicted, eyewitness misidentification, and false confessions. Rather than doing a rush job writing a final piece for the series, I encourage everyone to follow this link for the Frontline episode entitled “Burden of Innocence” (I couldn’t find a nifty player to embed the episode into this post but you can watch the episode in its entirety there). This episode deals with life after these individuals have been exonerated and their struggles to reenter and rejoin free society. It seems that there is much work that needs to be done here as well.

You Would Never Confess to a Crime You Did Not Commit? Don’t Be So Sure

Disclaimer: The views expressed here at The Liberty Papers either by the post authors or views found in the comments section do not necessarily reflect the views of The Innocence Project nor its affiliates.

In support of our fundraising efforts for The Innocence Project, I have decided to dedicate at least one post per week over the next four weeks to the cause of criminal justice reform – many of which are the very reforms The Innocence Project are working to bring about. With just 2 weeks left of this fundraising campaign, 208 “Innocence Partners” combined efforts has raised over $10,000 of the $20,000 target. As of this writing, you readers have already donated $375 – 75% of our $500 goal! Thanks to everyone who has donated so far or plans to donate. Remember: your donations are 100% tax deductible.

One more brief note before I get into this post’s topic of false confessions. Just three days ago, Thomas Haynesworth became The Innocence Projects’ 267th exoneree and was released from prison after serving 27 years for three rapes that DNA tests and other evidence prove he did not commit (well, technically he was paroled; The Innocence Project is now trying to have his conviction overturned via the Virginia Court of Appeals or by a pardon from the governor who says he will consider pardoning Haynesworth).

False Confessions

A skilled interrogator knows all sorts of ways to persuade individuals guilty of committing a crime to confess. The problem is, the same interrogator’s methods can often persuade individuals who are innocent to confess as well.

But why would an innocent person confess to crimes as serious as rape and murder, you ask? This is some of what The Innocence Project has learned:

In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.

These cases show that confessions are not always prompted by internal knowledge or actual guilt, but are sometimes motivated by external influences.

Why do innocent people confess?
A variety of factors can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation. Many cases have included a combination of several of these causes. They include:

•duress
•coercion
•intoxication
•diminished capacity
•mental impairment
•ignorance of the law
•fear of violence
•the actual infliction of harm
•the threat of a harsh sentence
•Misunderstanding the situation

The documentary series Frontline episode “The Confessions” (below) profiles a case where eight individuals were charged in large part due to five confessions for a rape and murder of a Norfolk, Virginia woman. Only one of the five confessions turned out to be true and the actual perpetrator admitted he acted alone.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

How can false confessions be minimized? One common sense reform The Innocence Project is pushing is simply passing laws which would require all interrogations to be recorded. If the men in the above case had their confessions recorded, the interrogators wouldn’t have the ability to have each rehearse their confessions until it fit with their theory. Every lie and every threat by the interrogators would be replayed for the jury to hear. Only then could the jury have a more complete context of the interrogation.

Additional Thoughts on Recording Interactions with the Police

In response to the above post, Tom Knighton made some very good points in a blog post of his own regarding mandatory recording of interrogations that bear repeating here:

Littau suggests simply recording interrogations as a tool for preventing false confessions as the jury would hear the whole situation and perhaps make up their own minds regarding the so-called confession. I’m going to go so far as to suggest this as a tool for protecting law enforcement officers, as well as suspects. Recorded interrogations can also tell that an officer didn’t coerce a confession, assault a suspect, or anything else they may be accused of.

Transparency is always preferable to non-transparency when it comes to government, even in the law enforcement sector. By recording interviews, an agency opens a window on the process and protects everyone involved.

As the old saying goes, there’s three sides to every story. In the criminal justice system there’s the suspect’s side, the state’s side (or referred sometimes to as “the people’s” side), and the truth. Recording all interactions between the police and the suspect provides something very close to the truth (I say close because even video evidence can be limiting due to a variety of factors).

Really I think that all police interactions should be required by law to be recorded if the person doesn’t have access to a lawyer at that particular moment (and even then, the interaction should be recorded unless the lawyer wishes otherwise). Every police stop, every search warrant, and every raid on a person’s home should be fully* recorded; resulting video should be kept unedited** so both sides can examine the evidence fairly.

Of course, this all assumes that the purpose of our criminal justice system is to get to the truth.

*In the case of police raids, something that Radley Balko advocates (which I agree with fully) is that every SWAT or police officer who takes part in a raid should be required to have a camera mounted on his/her person – preferably helmet mounted. This would present the events how they happened from multiple points-of-view.

**Editing, destroying, or omitting such a video should be considered a crime akin to any other tampering or destruction of evidence.

Good Work — Almost There

Merely a week ago, I posted about a fundraiser for the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project is a non-profit group working to offer legal services to convicts claiming innocence who have a chance to prove it. Living in as free and just a country as we manage to have, there are still mistakes — many more than we likely realize. Those on the wrong end of those mistakes often have nobody willing to fight for them, even if they are truly innocent.

The Innocence Project hoped to get 200 individuals to set up web pages attempting to raise $100 each for a total fundraising goal of $20K. Given the modest but wider reach of this blog, I set up our page with a goal of $500, and I think it’s a good one, because we’re over 60% there.

If you haven’t rattled the cup yet, I highly recommend you do so. You’re working to help people who have been unfairly beaten by the system clear their name. If that’s not enough, it’s tax deductible, so every dollar you donate reduces the amount the system has to railroad others.

We’re less than $200 from the goal. Go help out someone who needs it.

Eyewitness Misidentification: Revisiting a Previous Discussion

Disclaimer: The views expressed here at The Liberty Papers either by the post authors or views found in the comments section do not necessarily reflect the views of The Innocence Project nor its affiliates.

In support of our fundraising efforts for The Innocence Project, I have decided to dedicate at least one post per week over the next four weeks to the cause of criminal justice reform – many of which are the very reforms The Innocence Project are working to bring about. As of this writing, you readers have already donated $310 – 62% of our $500 goal! Thanks to everyone who has donated so far or plans to donate. Remember: your donations are 100% tax deductible.

With that out of the way, now I will turn your attention to the topic at hand: Eyewitness Misidentification.

Back almost three years ago to the day, I wrote a post about Troy Davis who had his death row appeal denied despite seven eyewitnesses recanting their testimonies (this case is still winding its way through the courts; here is an update on where the case stands today). As is often the case whether here at The Liberty Papers or at other blogs, the discussion that followed my post was actually a great deal more interesting than the post itself IMHO. Jeff Molby, a person who comments on a somewhat regular basis, really got the discussion going with several Liberty Papers contributors and readers.

The part of the post that Jeff believed to be “misleading” was the following statement I took from The Innocence Project webpage that dealt with the role eyewitness misidentification plays in wrongful convictions:

Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.

While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated.

This was Jeff’s response:

Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.

That’s a misleading stat. The relevant stat would be the percentage of convictions based on eyewitness identification that were later overturned due to DNA testing.

Comment by Jeff Molby — March 17, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

Perhaps the reason Jeff found the quote was misleading was my fault rather than The Innocence Project’s. The page that I took the quote from goes into greater detail complete with links for further reading. From my reading of their material, it seems to me that the statistics they are dealing with are from their now 266 exonerations. As the discussion unfolded, this forced me to do some additional research outside of The Innocence Project [Thanks a lot Jeff : ) ] to see if I could find more data to support –or refute The Innocence Project’s claim. Fellow contributor and lawyer by trade, Doug Mataconis also weighed in with his thought about the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

The highlights from this discussion are below the fold.
» Read more

With Gov. Pat Quinn’s Signature, the Death Penalty is Abolished in Illinois

ABC News reports:

In a ceremony behind closed doors today Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill that will make Illinois the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.

“I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed.” said Quinn in a statement issued after the signing.

“Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.” he said.

This is precisely the same reasoning that brought me to my anti-death penalty position. Can anyone really argue the system is “good enough” when it comes to the state’s legal ability to kill?

The Scales of Justice Need Rebalancing

In support of our fundraising efforts for The Innocence Project, I have decided to dedicate at least one post per week over the next four weeks to the cause of criminal justice reform – many of which are the very reforms The Innocence Project are working to bring about. As of this writing, I am pleased to announce that in this very first day of fundraising, you readers have already donated $285 – 57% of our $500 goal! Thanks to everyone who has donated so far or plans to donate. Remember: your donations are 100% tax deductible.

The post below is one I originally posted back in November of 2007 and my first post of any substance here at The Liberty Papers. I’m also very honored to say that this post was chosen by my peers (who I have such a great deal of respect for as thinkers, writers, and individuals) as #5 on the list of the “Top 10 Liberty Papers Posts of the last 5 Years” marking The Liberty Papers 5 year blogiversary. At the time I wrote this post, I had never even heard of The Innocence Project nor its aims to make one of the very reforms suggested in this post: compensation for the wrongfully convicted. The Duke Lacrosse case was also one of the hot issues when I wrote the post (and therefore may seem somewhat dated).

As ‘unbalanced’ as I thought the scales of justice were back then, I now know its much worse than I realized even back then. The Innocence Project is working hard to correct this imbalance but they cannot do it alone. Be part of the solution and help us reach our goal and if you feel so motivated, you can even set up your own page to help The Innocence Project reach their $20,000 goal by April 7, 2011.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here at The Liberty Papers either by the post authors or views found in the comments section do not necessarily reflect the views of The Innocence Project nor its affiliates.

    The Scales of Justice Need Rebalancing


In civics class, we are taught a few lessons about the American criminal justice system: the accused is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, has the right to a court-appointed attorney if the accused wishes not to pay for his or her own, has a right to a trial by a jury of his or her peers, and jurors can only convict the accused if there is a lack of reasonable doubt in their minds. We are told that the accused is guaranteed a fair and speedy trial. We are told the burden of proof falls on the state; the accused only has to provide reasonable doubt (meaning the accused ‘probably’ did not commit the crime). We are to believe that an individual who is innocent would rarely (if ever) be wrongfully convicted because our criminal justice system is about finding the truth and rendering justice.

What the civics classes usually fail to mention is that regardless of the fact that jurors are supposed to consider the accused innocent until proven guilty, it is human nature to assume the worst of someone who is accused of committing a heinous crime. Jurors come with their own biases and world views and may find it difficult to suppress their inclinations and deal with the facts of the case. The civics lesson also usually fails to point out that if the accused chooses to go with a court-appointed lawyer, he or she will not be as likely to have an as aggressive and competent advocate as the state will. If the accused makes the wise decision to pay for his or her own defense, he or she can expect to spend his or her entire life’s savings (and perhaps the life’s savings of other friends and family members) just to have competent representation. Even if the accused has the means to pay for such a competent lawyer, there are no guarantees that he or she will be found not guilty regardless of the evidence or whether or not the accused committed the crime. And if the jury finds the defendant not guilty, then what? Sure, he or she is technically cleared of the crime but he or she still has to pay all the legal fees for his or her lawyer and the fact that he or she was ever charged will remain on his or her criminal record. » Read more

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is — The Innocence Project

[To skip my blather and go straight to The Liberty Papers’ page at the Innocence Project, go here.]

It’s been said before that a conservative is simply a liberal who’s been mugged, and that a libertarian is a conservative who’s been mugged — by his own government.

I know that for me, it wasn’t *exactly* that, but not far off. I spent a good portion of my life as a bit of a law-and-order conservative — or given that I was never on board with social conservatism, a law-and-order libertarian. What has really changed my outlook as I’ve delved deeper into the world of politics is that I’ve lost faith in the government’s ability to fairly and responsibly exercise even these powers. I’ve completely lost faith in the death penalty, because while time can never be restored, it’s a lot easier to free a wrongfully convicted live man than a dead one. I do believe that our government in America, as screwed up as it is, generally is willing to correct judicial system errors when beaten over the head with them.

But who is going to beat them over the head? The convicted are not a naturally sympathetic interest group. The “law-and-order” crowd will typically give the benefit of the doubt to the law-and-order crowd. There aren’t a lot of people who are going to stand up for a convicted rapist or convicted murderer. And it’s not as if proclaiming one’s innocence is something only the innocent do, so it can be tough to determine which convict is worth fighting for.

But none of that changes the fact that the government wrongfully convicts innocent people, and that justice demands that someone stand up for them. That someone is the Innocence Project:

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

To date, 266 innocent prisoners have been exonerated by DNA testing, 17 who were on death row at the time. The criminal justice system tends to be reticent to accept the possibility of their own mistake, so it often takes outside pressure to have DNA testing performed on “cold” cases. The Innocence Project provides pro-bono legal representation to people trying to prove their innocence. Getting innocent people out of prison? I don’t see how you can argue with that. Note also that The Innocence Project is spending their time and money on the ground, helping actual convicts. This is not an activism organization lobbying your legislators, it exists to actual help individual convicts trying to prove their innocence.

Because of that, I have opened a page on behalf of The Liberty Papers with the Innocence Project, who happen to be running a fundraising drive right now.

The Innocence Project is pushing for $20K in donations by April 7, and are hoping to get 200 individual people to set up pages with a goal of $100 each. I think we here at The Liberty Papers can do better, so I’ve set a goal of $500. Our readers come from many walks of life, and I know that for some of you, $10 might be a suitable donation, and for others, $50 or $100 might be more palatable. Either way, remember that your contribution might help to get an innocent person out of jail for a heinous crime that they didn’t commit.

Also note that your contribution is tax-deductible. For every dollar you donate, you reduce your tax liability by whatever tax bracket you’re in. Not only do you support a quality organization fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves, you help to starve the beast as well. Win-win!

Exonerated After 18 Years on Death Row, Anthony Graves Will Not Be Compensated on a Legal Technicality

Anthony Graves, the 12th death row inmate to be exonerated in Texas, will not receive his $1.4 million compensation for serving 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The sum of $1.4 million might sound like a lot of money until one considers all the years of lost income potential, time pursuing his dreams, time with family and friends, and basically enjoying the everyday freedoms most of us take for granted. When considering what Anthony Graves has lost, $1.4 million is a mere pittance of what he deserves and an insult to any notion of justice.

But Anthony Graves will not get $1.4 million pittance from the State of Texas despite this injustice.

Why?

The Texas Comptroller’s office’s rationale is that the phrase “actual innocence” is nowhere to be found in the judge’s ruling that set Graves free. Apparently, none of the other combinations of words to which most reasonable people would reach that very conclusion in the judge’s ruling doesn’t matter. As Donald Pennington put it writing for Yahoo! News, Anthony Graves has been “Twice Robbed by the State of Texas.”

Pennington writes:

Why weren’t state employees, such as the prosecutor, as adamant about following the rules when they were trying the case? It was discovered by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 that prosecutors had withheld evidence and elicited false testimony in their case against Anthony Graves from 1994. If the “rule of law” is so important to these sorts of bureaucrats, why are those rules so subjectively applied?

For that matter, when prosecutors commit these sorts of abuses, why aren’t they brought up on charges? Isn’t this sort of case a perfect example of unlawful imprisonment, kidnapping, and felony conspiracy? Since Anthony Graves was, in fact, on death row for something he did not do, shouldn’t those people working in the prosecutor’s office (at the time) be charged with attempted murder?

I couldn’t agree more with Pennington’s sentiments here. Why can’t the prosecutor and those working for him be charged with these above crimes? I imagine that if prosecutors were actually held criminally responsible for what would be crimes if committed by anyone else, we might then (finally) hear some talk of reforming the system. Let one prosecutor receive a death sentence for falsely putting someone else on death row, just one…

Gov. Pat Quinn to Decide Fate of the Death Penalty in Illinois

Both houses of the Illinois legislature passed a bill which would end the death penalty in the state. However, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has reportedly stated he wants to “reflect” on the issue before deciding whether or not he will sign the bill into law.

(Reuters) – Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said on Wednesday he would “reflect” on the death penalty ban passed by the state legislature before deciding whether to sign it.

“Anyone in Illinois who has an opinion, I’m happy to listen and reflect and I’ll follow my conscience,” Quinn told reporters. If he agrees to the ban, Illinois will be the first state since 2009 to abolish executions.

The Illinois Senate voted for the ban Tuesday afternoon. The House had approved it last week. Quinn said the opinion of the members of the legislature is “very serious indeed.”

Illinois has not executed anyone for more than a decade after former Republican Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in January 2000. This followed a series of revelations that more than a dozen people had been sent to Death Row who were later found to be innocent.

Quinn, a Democrat, has said in the past that he approved of the death penalty for the most heinous crimes, but wanted to continue the moratorium.

I can certainly respect Gov. Quinn’s honesty here. This is an issue that does deserve some reflection but unfortunately for many death penalty advocates, there seems to be a lack of reflection. Admittedly there are pros as well as cons with the death penalty and Gov. Quinn is going to have to weigh these carefully.

Considering that, as mentioned in the article, more than a dozen individuals were wrongfully convicted and put on death row, and considering that former Gov. George Ryan took 167 prisoners off death row and pardoned 4 others (mentioned elsewhere in the article), I would like to think that upon this reflection, Gov. Quinn will determine that the risk of wrongful execution is too great. The question then becomes: “How many innocent individuals am I willing to sacrifice in order to execute those who have truly committed the most heinous of crimes?”

The fact that there are very bad people who do very evil, heinous things (Jared Lee Loughner comes to mind) is the reason why most death penalty supporters support the death penalty.

With this in mind, the article continues:

Lawrence Marshall, a Stanford Law School professor who had represented several freed Illinois Death Row inmates, said the problem with trying to limit the death penalty to “heinous” crimes is that the emotion surrounding those crimes can lead to errors.

“It’s the very kind of passion that triggers the desire for the death penalty in a particular case that does have the potential to be blinding,” said Marshall, who co-founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

Among Marshall’s clients was Rolando Cruz, who was on Death Row for years for the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, even though another man, Brian Dugan, admitted to the crime. After Cruz was freed, Dugan was convicted and is now on Death Row.

Personally, I think even one wrongful execution is too many and Illinois has demonstrated far too high of an error rate (and these of course are only the errors we know about). Illinois is in no way special in this regard. We have to remember that our criminal justice systems at each level are in fact human systems subject to human error. When the question is a matter of life and death as is the case here, I would urge Gov. Quinn to err on the side of life.

Open Thread: Successes and Setbacks for Liberty in 2010/Hopes for 2011

Was 2010 a good year or bad year for liberty and why? Like most of you will likely respond, 2010 was very much a mixed bag IMHO.

On the positive side, the mandate section of ObamaCare was found unconstitutional, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, Wikileaks exposed the federal government for the corrupt organization it is, the Democrats took a beating on election day, and the Bush era tax cuts were extended (though with the return of the death tax, extension of unemployment benefits, and other compromises in the bill, I’m not yet sure if this was a good or bad thing).

On the other hand, Republicans gained ground on election day (I’m not optimistic that they have changed much since the last time they ran things), the vast majority of incumbents in both parties were easily reelected, government spending is way out of control, the Fed wants to pump some $600 billion into the economy by printing more counterfeit money, unconstitutional invasive searches continue to take place at airports in the name of safety, both Democrat and Republican politicians consider Wikileaks to be a “terrorist” organization, and President Obama believes he can assassinate American citizens where they stand with no due process whatsoever.

On the criminal justice front, The Innocence Network (part of The Innocence Project) exonerated 29 individuals in 2010 for crimes they did not commit. Back in March, Hank Skinner came within an hour of being executed when SCOTUS halted the process. Skinner’s case continues to wind its way through the courts. In other death penalty news of 2010, Kevin Keith’s death sentence was commuted to life by Gov. Strickland, Anthony Graves became the 12th death row inmate to be exonerated in Texas, a key DNA sample was determined to not be a match for another Texas man, Claude Jones who was executed in 2000, and Texas continues to stonewall inquiries into the likely wrongful 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. As these questionable death penalty cases pile up, hopefully this will be the beginning of the end of the death penalty in Texas and elsewhere.

In a couple of other cases we never quite got around to at The Liberty Papers but deserve to be mentioned: Cory Maye was granted a new trial by the Mississippi Supreme Court because the trial judge failed to give jury instructions to consider a “defense of others” defense and in Arkansas, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the so-called “West Memphis 3” to consider newly discovered DNA evidence and juror misconduct from the original trial (if you are not familiar with this case, I urge you to follow this link as a starting point. The more I have looked into this case the more disturbing I find it to be…a perfect example of what is so terribly wrong with the system).

Hopes for 2011
Rather than offering predictions for 2011, here are some of my hopes:

– I hope that the justice will be served in the above cases.

-I hope I am wrong about the Tea Party Republicans and that they will actually be a force of positive change for more liberty and smaller government

-I hope that Ron Paul decides not to run for president for the 2012 campaign but instead puts his support behind former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (I’ll get into my reasoning in a future post).

-I hope by this time next year, I’ll have far more successes than setbacks for liberty to report.

Now it’s your turn. How do you feel about the state of liberty in 2010 and how do you feel about the year ahead?

Is it Possible that More Conservatives are Getting a Clue About Criminal Justice Reform and Even the War on (Some) Drugs?

Up until about Monday of this week, such a question would have made me laugh. As I have increasingly involved myself in criminal justice issues, I have found the Democrats to be slightly more willing to take on the Prison Industrial Complex, mandatory minimum sentences, and decriminalization (if not outright legalization) of marijuana. These Democrats are typically vilified as being “soft on crime” for suggesting alternatives to hard time for non-violent crimes such as the ones I recently wrote about in my movie review for It’s More Expensive to do Nothing.

And no, I’m not talking about Ron Paul/Rand Paul*Gary Johnson, or Republican Liberty Caucus Conservatives here, I’m referring to the traditionally “tough on crime” Social Conservatives like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Attorney General Ed Meese who usually take pride in legislating morality. Radley Balko wrote an article at Reason about this new Conservative project called Right on Crime. While I haven’t had the chance to review the website for myself, what Balko has reported about the project is very encouraging: they actually recognize many of the very problems I have been writing about such as the size and makeup of the prison population, recidivism, and the economic and social costs associated with each.

As if this new project wasn’t enough to get my attention, there was this video that first saw yesterday on my Facebook page from something Pat Robertson said:

Did Pat Robertson just come out in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and criticize mandatory minimum sentences? It’s a freaking Christmas miracle!

While I don’t necessarily agree with some of Right on Crime’s and Robertson’s proposed solutions to reforming the criminal justice system, I find it very encouraging that they are at least beginning to recognize the problems associated with the “tough on crime” mentality. Perhaps now Libertarians, Conservatives, and Progressives can actually have a much needed adult conversation about these issues and find some common ground.

That would at least be a start.

» Read more

Correcting the so called “Corrections” system

As of today, it should be clear to everyone in this country, that our system for dealing with criminals (I won’t call it a “criminal justice” system since justice has so little to do with it), is utterly broken, beyond any conventional concept of repair.

At this point, again I say, it should be clear we can’t just “fix it”, we need to start over again, with a different concept.

I have a radical idea…. how about this time we start with an HONEST concept… because right now we are anything but honest about what the real function of the “criminal justice” system is; and that dishonesty is what has made all our efforts to date fail miserably.

Today, although we will never admit this to ourselves publicly, there are three things keeping the “Corrections” system going:

1. It’s a jobs program for law enforcement and “corrections” officers, and administrators

2. Non-offending people ARE actually safer when offenders are imprisoned (the problem is, what happens when they get out).

3. We like lots of cops (or at least the IDEA of lots of cops), we want to be “safe”, and we feel that people who do bad should be PUNISHED.

That’s really what it comes down to though, is punishment.

Punishment isn’t SUPPOSED to “help” them. Punishment isn’t supposed to “rehabilitate” them.

The very term “department of corrections” is a hypocritical misnomer.

Americans (and to a large extent most other cultures), put people in prison to punish them, not to “fix” them.

“Correctional system”, “penitentiary”… All high minded hypocritical myths.

The reason “Sheriff Joe” “Americas Toughest Sherrif” is so popular (despite being the worst sort of self aggrandizing, corrupt, civil rights abusing scum) is because he reassures people that he is “punishing the bad guys”; and THAT is honestly what people want.

Eastern State Penitentiary, the first “modern” penitentiary style prison, was deliberately fashioned to resemble monks cells (which is where we got the name for inmate housing units), in the belief that isolation, contemplation, prayer, and penitence (thus the name), would reform criminals into decent men. It was held up as the new “humane” model. In reality it drove prisoners mad and they killed themselves, and each other, in droves.

So long as we refuse to acknowledge the true purpose behind “custodial sentencing” and pretend it has anything to do with the offender coming out better on the other side, we are stuck with what we’ve got (And rapidly getting worse).

We have to stop pretending that punishment does anything but feed our base emotions.

We have to stop pretending that the negative prospect of prison is sufficient to deter criminals from committing crimes. Most criminals by nature have a poor appreciation for consequences, poor impulse control, and an inability to make valid risk/reward calculations.

When you put a criminal away, all you are doing is warehousing him where he can’t commit that crime anymore. That does serve a valid purpose, but it costs a huge amount of money, and doesn’t fix the problem.

The so called “criminal justice” system can no longer serve as a jobs program for law enforcement, lawyers, administrators, and corrections personnel; nor can it simply be warehousing of offenders until we release them to commit their next offense.

So, here it is, really simple; my pie in the sky ideal for how to deal with crime and punishment.

Step 1: drug addiction, possession, use, and sale, must be decriminalized

This has to happen for ANYTHING to have any hope of working. That would eliminate something like 80% of the offenses in higher criminal courts, and drastically reduce prison populations (at least 40%, most likely something more like 80%).

Step 2: We must not only stop, but revert the proliferation of felonies

Right now, you can be convicted of a felony in some states, for as little as selling the wrong kind of fish at the wrong time. We have established a ridiculous number of offenses as “high crimes” (what felonies are intended to be); without any real justification or social purpose, except to inflate those whom the state can claim as convictions, claim higher punitive penalties from, or incarcerate for longer periods of time.

Accordingly, all crimes currently classified as felonies must be reclassified as misdemeanors unless they meet one or more of the following conditions:

1. Physical violence sufficient to cause grievous bodily harm, grievous trauma (such as rape and molestation), or substantial risk of loss of life (or more).

2. Physical or monetary damages equal to or greater than two years income at minimum wage, presuming a 1940 hour work year.

3. Crimes against basic human rights, including terrorism, tampering with courts, deprivation of rights etc…

4. Grave harm to the national security of the united states, including espionage and treason.

5. Criminal negligence, gross indifference, coercion, conspiracy, or fraud sufficient to cause the above.

Step 3: We must completely overhaul our punishment and societal protection model

We must eliminate custodial sentences for non-violent crimes, including felonies, unless those crimes involve:

1. Gross negligence or indifference leading to violent consequences or the loss of life (anything from drunk driving to greater liability issues)

2. Coercion, force or fraud causing damages in excess of five years of minimum wage (because this is effectively slavery for the victim)

3. Special circumstances which are considered “heinous” (more on that later).

We must restore the element of criminal intent into how crimes are charged and sentenced. If there is no intent, then there can be no intentional crime; only crimes of negligence or indifference, which are generally considered far less severe.

In this regard, any action taken while intoxicated or impaired should be considered qualifying, HOWEVER only if criminal damage or injury to others results.

I believe that people should be allowed to drink, swallow or smoke whatever they want, but if their choices cause impairment which then causes damage or injury to others, they should be punished SEVERELY; and crimes involving impairment should be considered intentional for purposes of determining severity.

Also for purposes of determining the severity of an offense, coercion or fraud shall be considered equivalent to force (force being defined as violence, or the threat of violence).

All other criminal offenses should be punished by restitution and compensatory and punitive damages to the victim, compensatory and punitive fines to the state, labor for public benefit, public humiliation, and two years of convict status (which can be reduced by order of a judge only after discharge of all obligations).

Further, on discharge of all other obligations, convicts shall be given a term, of “probation” equal to the length of their existing sentence.

The crimes, sentences, and photographs of all those convicted of criminal offenses should be published in all local newspapers, as well as on local and national web sites; and announced on local television.

All convicts should be required to wear a distinctive article (bracelet, necklace, ankle bracelet etc…) which lists their crime and sentence, and which cannot be covered up while in public.

Convicts must wear this article, until such time as their sentence and obligations have been discharged. At any time, the convict should be legally required to disclose their crime and sentence to anyone who asks; unless doing so would cause danger or disruption.

If a convict is able to earn more than a state mandated minimum wage in their private pursuits, they may continue performing them, and pay restitution and fines directly. If not, then they are directed to work for the state, at a competitive wage for such jobs as they perform, while meeting prevailing employment standards for such a position (i.e. if the only job they qualify for is ditch digger, it’s the only job they can get; and they still have to compete for it with non-convicts).

If the convict is unable to meet basic standards of work, or is unwilling to work, then they will be reduced to menial forced labor at minimum wage. If they refuse this, they will be incarcerated, as a regular inmate, for the term of their sentence.

Restitution, damages, and fines should of course be directly garnished from the convicts wages; but should be considered pre-tax income deductions for tax purposes.

All custodial sentences shall have terms of two, five, ten, twenty five years, or life (or death in states that allow it).

Different charged offenses can be combined consecutively to “stack” sentences; but only if those offenses make up separate criminal acts (if one crime involved 8 different chargeable elements with a 2 year sentence for each, then the convict would receive 8 two year sentences to run concurrently. If he committed the same crime on 8 different occasions, he could receive consecutive sentences, for a total of 16 years incarceration)

There is no parole, however sentences can be reduced (more on that later).

Forcible rape, aggravated sexual assault, sexual molestation, aggravated kidnapping, intentional premeditated or depraved homicide (what would be first degree murder in most jurisdictions), felony murder if the homicide is heinous by itself, any intentional negligent or depraved indifference crime resulting in mass death or mass grievous injury (mass being defined as multiple victims who were not individually targeted, or multiple victims who were unknown to the criminal and whom they had no individual an personal motive to harm), any crime involving tampering with a court or an election, any crime involving the intentional deprivation of an individuals basic human and civil rights (as enumerated in the declaration of independence, and the constitution), torture, espionage, treason; or any attempt to commit those crimes, or conspiracy to commit those crimes; shall all be considered “heinous crimes”.

Heinous crimes should all carry the maximum length of incarceration, and should be eligible for the death penalty in jurisdictions that allow it.

It is important however, that all state and federal laws about the definitions of these crimes must be clarified and harmonized to meet the highest standard of criminal act, and criminal intent (for example, a potentially but not explicitly sexual element to a simple assault – such as public nudity or forced nudity -, would not make it sexual assault. The intent and act must be sexual in nature, and involve sexual contact or acts, or attempted sexual contact or acts. Forcible rape must be limited to actual acts of physical violence, or coercion by threat of violence, resulting in a sexual act).

Oh and yes, I really do believe that voter fraud and election fraud should be punishable by life in prison. So should criminally preventing someone from voting who has the lawful franchise. Any criminal deprivation of rights should be considered as serious as rape or murder.

In addition to their custodial sentence, of course, all penalties that apply to non-custodial sentences would also apply. Restitution, damages, fines and fees, as well as all other conditions of convicts.

Sentences can be reduced, by a judge, on review of the case, and circumstances. A review will be automatically initiated at the time the convict discharges their restitution, damages, and fines, should they do so before the term of their incarceration is completed. Criminals convicted of heinous crimes however, would not be eligible for early release except for humanitarian reasons.

While serving a custodial sentence and incarcerated, unless disabled and unable to do so, the convict will be required to perform productive labor for at least 8 hours a day, five days a week; for which they will be paid at minimum, a base sum equal to the cost of their incarceration (for which they will be charged). They will also accumulate sick leave benefit, and paid vacation days, equivalent to a government employee of the same grade as whatever productive labor they perform.

If the convict is disabled and unable to perform any work, they will be given the same disability status as any disabled individual; and will receive the equivalent of all federal and state disability payments and benefits, to offset the cost of their incarceration.

The convict is to be given the opportunity to voluntarily learn useful job skills, and perform at a useful job at market rates, which can earn them money to pay their fines and restitution.

If the convict has useful skills which can be applied to work that can be performed within the terms of their incarceration without undue risk, this is to be allowed.

The convict is also to be offered the opportunity to work overtime, and earn more money; to be used to pay the cost of their incarceration, their fines and restitution; the balance of which should be the inmates to control as they see fit.

This should not imply the inmate has a right to any job other than basic labor paid at a rate sufficient to cover the cost of their incarceration. Only that the opportunity to seek and perform other employment must be allowed.

If a convict refuses to work, or does not meet minimum standards of work, they are to be restricted to solitary confinement without public exercise, visitation, or communication privileges (excepting legal and spiritual council), and reduced to subsistence ration. Additionally, any work day the convict refuses to work, the cost of their incarceration for that day will be added to their obligations.

Some of this may seem ridiculous (vacation days for convicts?) but it serves an important purpose. The convict should understand, they are performing a job, for pay. They benefit from their own labor, and they have to pay for their own upkeep. If they work harder or more or at a better job, they get ahead; just like everyone else.

This kind of normalization is really the only way to produce people who won’t reoffend when they get out. Get them useful job and life skills they can transfer to the outside world; and get them in the habit of meeting standards of behavior; you’ll see a huge difference.

Any convict caught committing any felony while incarcerated will be subject to immediate extension of their sentence to life in the case of non-violent felonies, or death in the case of violent felonies. Self defense (against ANY crime or attempted crime against them, not just murder) is considered a valid defense against such charges however.

On their release from custody, convicts will be liable to the same penalties and strictures as those who have received non-custodial sentences.

Any further felony committed by any felony convict, whether incarcerated or not, prior to the discharge of any and all obligations (fines, restitution, service or labor), or in the convicts “probation” period will result in an automatic custodial sentence of at least five years; even for offenses that would not normally carry a custodial penalty.

Any violent felony committed prior to the discharge of any and all obligations shall result in an automatic custodial sentence of life in prison, or death.

On the discharge of their fines and restitution, and completion of any service or labor requirements, and any probation period; all convicts shall have all their civil rights restored, including the right to vote, and the right to keep and bear arms.

Private employers may discriminate against convicts, even after their obligations have been discharged, should they choose to do so. The federal, state, and local governments however may NOT discriminate against convicts whose sentences have been discharged however, except for those convicted of Heinous crimes (who should, in general, not be released anyway) or in the case of employment in law enforcement, criminal justice, corrections, national security, or the military.

Any repeat offense of the same felony, or any violent felony by a convicted felon who has discharged their sentence, shall cause a convict to be considered an incorrigible offender, and subject to an automatic sentence of 25 years, life, or death at a judges discretion (25 years for any crime that would normally rate a sentence less than 25 years. Life for any crime that would normally rate 25 years. Death for any heinous crime, or crime that would normally rate life). As always, this is subject to review and reduction by a judge after the convict has discharged their obligations (excepting heinous crimes).

I call this the “one chance, don’t blow it” rule. I believe it is fully justified, because the nature and scope of felonies is being dramatically reduced; the standards for offense are much higher, and the ability of someone to reintegrate into society without re-offending should be much better under this regime.

That’s it. Not exactly simple, but a lot less complicated than our current system… and if anything can work, it ought to be this.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

“More Expensive” Offers Alternatives to Incarceration to Break the Recidivism Cycle

Title: It’s More Expensive to do Nothing

Producer: Humane Exposures Films

Directed by: Alan Swyer

Non-violent offender is arrested, convicted, does his time, re-enters society and the cycle repeats. This is the typical cycle of recidivism in the American criminal justice system thanks largely to the “tough on crime” approach of state and federal policy. If the goal of policy makers is to put more individuals in prison, they are surely succeeding as the U.S. has 2.38 million prisoners; the highest number of reported prisoners in the world. If the goal of policy makers is to aid individuals in rehabilitation the policy makers have surely failed.

If incarceration is not the answer, does anyone have a better alternative?

Humane Exposures, the producers of the up and coming documentary It’s More Expensive to do Nothing believe they do. Their answer to this growing problem is a less costly alternative to incarceration; they say remediation is a better way. More Expensive, focusing primarily on California’s criminal justice system, interviews some 25 experts in the fields of psychiatry, law, law enforcement, corrections, policy, and healthcare as well as several individuals who themselves broke their personal cycles of recidivism and successfully turned their lives around with the aid of the very policies and programs the film advocates.

The most obvious question to answering the problem of recidivism is simply “why do 75% of California’s offenders re-offend?” Several very good answers are offered in the film but perhaps the best answer comes from Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, and Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy of Houston, Texas:

I would challenge anybody who is watching this [documentary] to be able to take 200 bucks, with no place to live really…except for a flophouse and not have a job or even job skills…

I mean, you may be a lawyer with no job. How long are you going to last?

[…]

Why do we expect somebody who has fewer skills than a professional to be able to somehow get out into the community and be successful?

We libertarians talk a lot about how individuals should be held responsible for their own actions as a consequence of living in a free society. Generally speaking, libertarians dislike government programs that are intended to help people avoid the consequences of their poor decisions. Be that as it may, I believe that Dr. Perry makes a very good point here. It’s very difficult to expect individuals to make better decisions in the future when there are few options available. With little or no social skills, little or no job skills, little or no support from family, friends, or the community, its very difficult for most individuals to resist re-offending. For those who are addicted to illicit drugs, trying to stay out of trouble is all that much more difficult.

As difficult as it may be for most of us to imagine, several of the ex-cons featured in the film did not find the prospect of returning to prison as much of a deterrent to making bad choices. Karen Miller, Drug and Alcohol Counselor for Community Resources And Self Help (CRASH) who herself is 11 years sober and broke the recidivism cycle said that if nothing else, she saw going back to jail as “Three hots and a cot.” Another said he felt safer behind bars than on the street. The truth of the matter is that the prison system is a government program as well complete with housing, healthcare, and 3 square meals for each inmate each day.

The government program championed by the experts in the film which was a result of California Senate Bill 618 provides non-violent offenders a multi-agency approach with the goal of helping them acquire job training, treatment, and most importantly, hope for their futures. Proponents argue that this isn’t a hand out but a hand up. Each person who goes through these programs are held accountable by their councilors, their peers, and themselves. Each has to take initiative and earn their completion certificates before they reenter society.

The premise of the film is in its title: “It’s More Expensive to do Nothing.” Obviously, doing “something” also has a cost associated with it, so what does their alternative program cost and has the program shown measurable results? According to the film, the program costs California taxpayers about $5,000 per inmate per year with a 20% failure rate. Considering the size of California’s prison population, this seems like a great deal of money. But compared with the costs associated with the more traditional incarceration approach costing $75,000 per inmate, per year with a 75% failure rate, the alternative program seems like quite a bargain.

Despite the program’s success, these programs are in danger of losing funding. My question is why? While I know that California is financially a hot mess, it seems to me that if these programs are as successful as those in the film claims, even the law and order types in positions of power would do everything possible to keep this program going.

This leads me to my first of two criticisms of the film. Where are the people who represent the counterpoint? Though I am very sympathetic to the case More Expensive makes, hearing the other side’s arguments could further illuminate the debate. Even Michael Moore interviews individuals who disagree with him in his crockumentaries!

My second criticism is the failure to deal directly with the elephant in the room: the war on (some) drugs. While those interviewed in the film acknowledge that drug policy has lead to increased incarceration, has proven futile, and has contributed mightily to the recidivism problem they are trying to address, I don’t recall any mention from anyone raising the prospect of decriminalization or legalization of drugs. Portugal is a real life case study in how decriminalization there has led to less crime and fewer people suffering from drug addiction. Those who opposed decriminalization in Portugal warned of all the same dooms day consequences that drug warriors say would happen here but so far has not materialized. Bringing Portugal into the discussion may have given the film another interesting dimension.

My guess is that, provided that the producers of the film agree with the idea of decriminalization or legalization, perhaps raising this argument would turn off people who might otherwise on board with their approach. Or maybe ending the war on (some) drugs in America anytime soon is so unlikely in their minds that they want to work within the political reality we currently find ourselves. Convincing policy makers to consider remediation over punishment is quite a challenge in itself in a culture that affectionately refers to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio “the toughest sheriff in America” despite a long history of misconduct and civil rights abuses.

All criticisms aside, It’s More Expensive is a very important and very informative film that brings attention to an issue that doesn’t usually receive very much play in the media. The voices of a more common sense corrections policy deserve to be heard and It’s More Expensive to do Nothing amplifies these voices. It’s now up to us to listen and avoid the costly mistake of doing nothing to stop this vicious cycle.

Constitution Day Open Thread: Top 3 Amendments You Would Make

Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, allegedly the supreme law of the land. The framers of the Constitution recognized that over time changes would need to be made through an amendment process. In the intervening 223 years, this document has been amended only 27 times.

This brings me to the question I want to pose to readers: what top 3 amendments would you make if you could and why?

Here are my top 3 in no particular order:

1. Rebalancing the Scales of Justice Amendment: The 4th 6th Amendment’s guarantee for the accused to have a court appointed [see comments below] lawyer is a wonderful idea but incomplete. Sure, the accused can be represented by a public defender but does not have nearly the resources available as the prosecution. My proposed amendment would go further than the 4th 6th Amendment and state that the accused would be guaranteed the same resources in his or her defense as the prosecution. For every tax dollar spent to prosecute a dollar would be made available for the defense (whether or not the accused uses a court appointed attorney). This amendment would also guarantee compensation for the wrongfully accused, hold prosecutors criminally and civilly responsible for withholding exculpatory evidence from the jury, and clearly state that a compelling claim of “actual innocence” (due to newly discovered evidence or technological breakthroughs) would be reason enough for a new trial for the previously convicted.

2. Term Limits Amendment: A single 6 year term for president, 2 terms for senators (keep the current 6 year term), 6 terms for representatives (keep the current 2 year term). These terms would be limited for consecutive terms only; if a president wants to make another run, s/he could do so after sitting out a term while senators and representatives would have to sit out a full 12 years (and make them deal with the consequences of their laws as private citizens for awhile) or run for a different office.

3. Accident of Birth Amendment: This would revise Article II, Section 1 removing the requirement that the president must be a natural born citizen and changing the requirement to match that of a U.S. senator. While this requirement might have made sense 223 years ago when the nation was getting started, we are now to a point to where we can do away with it. I don’t like the idea of disqualifying an individual for something s/he had absolutely no control over. Also, this would force the birthers to think about something else other than Obama’s birth certificate : )

Now it’s your turn.

Jack Conway’s Unfair Attack on Rand Paul

I’m not a Rand Paul fan, not a Kentuckian and am not going to endorse him or give money to his campaign. Given that, all of the above is true of his Democratic opponent Jack Conway as well. His disingenuous advertisement attacking Paul for an alleged laissez faire approach to law enforcement is absurd and actually makes Paul look like a much more attractive candidate:

As has been made fairly clear by my posts and also by my colleague Stephen Littau, law enforcement in this country has gone out of control into zones of paramilitary tactics that are frightening.

Littau posted a Cato Institute video that showed a police arrest of a motorcyclist by an armed police officer showing no badge who looked on all accounts as if he were conducting a robbery.

Over at the Agitator, Radley Balko reports on the murder of Michael Sipes, seventeen, by police after responding to a noise complaint. As the drug war continues to escalate in Mexico, a smaller escalation appears to have occurred at home, with arrests up and disturbing lethal attacks on homes, including many where dogs have been killed. In 2007, drug arrests for marijuana possession alone totaled 775,138! If a Senator Paul will introduce legislation that would eliminate non-violent arrests for “crimes” like marijuana possession, more power to him.

I can not express enough how much I disagree with Paul on the Civil Rights Act and, given being told by a Kentuckian that racism was benefitting Paul in his senate race, it makes me distrust him highly. Given that, if Paul does think non-violent crimes should be at least a lower priority, that makes me give him a second look. The last thing we need is the “cops know best” approach that Jack Conway seems to be endorsing.

Even Death Penalty Supporters Urge Ohio Gov. Strickland to Spare Kevin Keith

Its one thing when anti-death penalty activists petition a governor to pardon or commute a sentence of an individual scheduled for execution but quite another when death penalty supporters agree. Kevin Keith is scheduled to be executed by the state of Ohio on September 15th for the 1994 murders of 2 adults and 1 child; a crime he has maintained he did not commit. Despite exculpatory evidence which points away from Keith and despite Gov. Ted Strickland’s (D) own public comments where he said he found “certain aspects” of the case “troubling,” the parole board voted 8-0 in favor of executing Keith.

Fortunately, the parole board’s decision is non-binding; Gov. Strickland or perhaps SCOTUS can still do the right thing and halt the execution until the more ‘troubling’ aspects of this case can be fairly reconsidered.

According to this article in The Guardian, among those who are urging Gov. Strickland to halt the execution are more than 30 former judges and prosecutors including former Ohio Attorney General and death penalty supporter Jim Petro (R) and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Herbert Brown.

Jim Petro in a letter to Gov. Strickland:

“I am gravely concerned that the state of Ohio may be on the verge of executing an innocent person”

Justice Herbert Brown in another letter:

“There is a mass of exculpatory evidence, suppressed evidence, faulty eyewitness identification and forensic reports that support legitimate claims of innocence”

Innocence Network President and Clinical Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School Keith A. Findley, while likely biased against the death penalty also wrote to persuade the governor:

Like so many of the wrongful conviction cases, tunnel vision by police, prosecutors, and even courts appears to have played a central role in Mr. Keith’s case and his ultimate conviction.

[…]

The evidence of these pernicious effects of tunnel vision, coupled with the compelling new evidence in Mr. Keith’s case, suggests that Ohio might be on the verge of executing an innocent man […]

Keith’s defense team, in a statement following the parole board’s decision points out that Gov. Strickland signed a bill into law which prohibited some of the very techniques investigators used against their client. Unfortunately for Keith, the banning of these faulty procedures came too late.

Yes, the case of Kevin Keith is indeed troubling. Maybe if a few thousand more can petition Gov. Strickland, he will be even more troubled to the point to where he will end this madness (click here to sign the petition).

In other troubling death penalty news, a federal judge has denied Troy Davis’ innocence claim despite 7 of 9 eyewitnesses recanting their testimonies against him.

1 2 3 4 5