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our criminal justice system is losing trust. it needs major reform and soon. there are so many things that are wrong with our criminal (in)justice system, it is difficult to know where to start. unfortunately, most of what needs to be fixed has not even ever appeared on the radar screen of public discourse. most discourse has not been about justice but about law. we need to change the law. justice is not just a game to be won.
(am I a liberal or a conservative—or just trying to be just? agree?—tell your newspaper to syndicate this post.)
the death penalty
there are deeds that are simply so heinous that the criminal does not deserve to live. it does not matter whether the death penalty has a deterrance effect or not. it does not matter whether it is more expensive than life-in-prison-without-parole. at some point, if someone murders enough victims (especially when motivated by race, gender, etc.), tortures their victims, kills a judge, jury, or law-enforcement officer (or is one while murdering and hiding behind the shield)—at some point, the death penalty is simply deserved.
alas, the death penalty in its current form is not acceptable. it is biased and inconsistent. and it is imposed on too many innocent people. i thus have one very simple suggestion:
to convict someone of the death penalty, it is not enough for the jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. instead, the jury must find the defendant guilty beyond any doubt.
this means not just two or three eyewitnesses, whose memory may play tricks on them. instead, it means clear dna evidence and/or more than a handful of independent identifying witnesses. if such damning evidence is not there, lucky defendant. we must err in his or her favor.
prosecutors should not be promoted based on their conviction rates. this is important. a justice system cannot work if the prosecutors have the wrong incentives—and they do today. their duty should be as much to clear the innocent as it is to convict the guilty. a judicial trial is not a game that they should try to win by convicting as many people as possible.
we must fund the public defender’s office and do so well. we must not allow the justice system to ruin the innocent and minor offenders.
every defendant who wants a speedy trial deserves one within 3-6 months. it is intrinsically unjust to let a prosecution dangle over someone’s life for years on end.
we must offer those having served their time and willing to live straight a second chance. with our public tracking systems are improving, it is quickly getting to the point where few former felons are getting their second chance.
we hold this truth to be self-evident: drug addiction is a disease, not a crime.
all personal-use drug offenses should be non-criminal. pumping oneself full of substances is a bad idea but it is not intrinsically criminal. it does not harm anyone else. it should not be criminalized further.
all drugs should be legalized, but with prescription. (drugs are not cool if you have to wait in a line to get them. and drug dealers then have less incentive to hook their victims if they can later get the drugs elsewhere, too.)
everyone’s dna fingerprint (fingerprint, not the whole dna, of course!) should be stored in a data base that is held and protected by the legal branch. it should not be administered by the executive or the legislative branch. with the appropriate warrant, a judge can receive a fingerprint from the police and execute a search of the print in this universal data base. there is a simple reason—we should favor all systems that protect the innocent and uncover the guilty.
of course, there is a danger of abuse of such a powerful data base, which is why it must not be that other branches of government should be allowed to hold such a powerful data base. but the benefits can outweight the gains.
incidentally, such a data base fits on one single hard drive these days. (and, of course, the data base should not be connected to the internet.)
evidence obtained via an illegal search should not be suppressed. if a police officer finds dna evidence on a murderer, why should this murderer go free? we should err in favor of all evidence that helps discriminates between the guilty and the innocent. the criminal justice system is not a game. it exists to convict the guilty and clear the innocent.
however, a police officer who obtains evidence illegally should be held responsible for doing so, just as (s)he is held responsible for following every other law. if the officer broke into someone’s house illegally, this is burglary. if the officer deliberately and knowingly bugged the telephone without a warrant, this is illegal wiretapping. thus, the penalty for the officer can be anything from nothing (e.g., good-faith attempts), to discriplinary action, all the way up to dismissal and criminal charges. law enforcement should not be above the law.
it also means that a police officer and district attorney who deliberately falsifies or omit evidence that can clear someone convicted are themselves fully subject to the law. depending on the situation, the penalties here could range up to murder itself!
law enforcement and especially the police are the only line that society has against anarchy. the veneer of civilization is thin. without them, we would be like somalia or syria. they put their lives daily on the line for the rest of us. they deserve our support and the benefit of the doubt.
however, we should have zero tolerance for racist or crooked police officers. we must not tolerate the thin blue line.
when it comes to judging individual police officers’ behavior, neither our politicians nor our police unions have been trustworthy friends of our common good.