While the Innocence Project of Florida was celebrating the first step toward an exoneration for Derrick Williams, many Americans – and people all over the world – were reading the Economist‘s most recent cover story, Rough Justice in America. The multi-part series details the endemic problems in America’s justice system, the gruesome statistics of which will be old news to many of us in the criminal justice community. (One in 100 Americans behind bars; imprisoning several times more people than Germany or Britain by population; increasingly harsh sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes; etc.) But the article was peppered with anecdotes that, as always, help to put a human face on the problem.
A 65-year-old man who imported orchids for a living, indicted for smuggling because his suppliers kept sloppy paperwork, and prosecuted as the “kingpin” of a smuggling ring. He was thrown in prison with an alleged murderer and two alleged drug dealers.
A depressed drug addict, busted in a dawn raid and sentenced to 7 years in prison. (The drug laws in Massachusetts are harsher on drug dealers than they are on armed rapists, the article notes.)
A three strikes offender in Alabama who eventually received a life sentence when the straw that broke the camel’s back was theft of a bicycle. And on, and on.
The Economist says most problems with the justice system can be traced to three systemic flaws: “First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.”
The human face of the problem, well illustrated by the cover story, is horrifying and frustrating. But America, not for the first time, has also been made into an international curiosity by being featured on the cover of the reputable British magazine. It is imperative that we as a country start searching for solutions, and what the Economist‘s article lacks is a mention of the progress is being made.
Enter S.714, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2010, introduced by Jim Webb (D-VA), which would establish “a National Criminal Justice Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of all areas of the criminal justice system.” The first charge of such a commission would be to make “recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice.”
The bill has been heralded as promising from criminal justice advocates, and enjoys the support of the LAPD, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Human Rights Watch, and other organizations, both in law enforcement and in criminal defense. The remarkable agreement between parties on this bill speaks to the true size and scope of the problem it is designed to address.
An analogous bill was introduced into the House of Representatives by William Delahunt (D-MA), and was passed by the House on July 27th. The bill has been placed on the calendar in the Senate, and awaits further action there. We can hope that it finds similar support in the Senate as it did in the House. If so, it would await signature by President Obama, and would represent a ray of light in the struggle for criminal justice. The bill is the most promising measure in recent memory, and it seems that reasonable people are finally coming together to declare that “Enough is enough,” and it is time to fix our broken justice system.
Ryan Jenkins is a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a guest contributor to Plain Error. Photos by Flickr users Sean Munson and sylvar.