The Dire Need to Reassess Criminal Justice in America

The Dire Need to Reassess Criminal Justice in America

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A lot of time and money is spent defending the American legal system. Meanwhile, the incarceration rate is multiplying exponentially. In the shadow of the much celebrated Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Criminal Justice Act was passed the same year with the aim of ensuring legal representation for indigent defendants. A lot has changed in 50 years, in all areas of American culture. Criminal justice is no exception.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, George F. Will questions the contemporary effectiveness of the Criminal Justice Act noting that some say it is “largely a failure because of unanticipated changes in the legal and social context.” With a US prison population exceeding 2.3 million, the arduous task of reassessing criminal justice is way past due.

Mr. Will points to the position of David E. Patton, executive director of Federal Defenders of New York.

“Would an indigent federal defendant prefer to be prosecuted in the system as it existed in 1963 with an ill-equipped, unpaid lawyer (or none at all), or would he prefer today’s system?” asks Patton. “Although the answer surely depends on many factors, I conclude that in far too many scenarios, the rational defendant would choose 1963.”

Patton contends that federal criminal law has expanded to a crippling level (over 4000 federal crimes and counting). Excessive plea bargaining has hampered the ability for defendants to receive true justice beyond a predictable reduced sentence. The argument that trials are costly and often unnecessary has resulted in a streamlined, plea bargain greased, criminal-creating factory.

“In 1963, nearly 15 percent of all federal defendants went to trial; in 2010, the figure was 2.7 percent.”

With so few federal defendants seeing their “day in court,” the process by which we arrive at criminal justice requires a critical and heart-felt reassessment.

One representative of the bench, J. Harvie Wilkenson III, counter argues Patton’s position as he defends the system as being imperfect, but effective and sufficient nonetheless. Wilkenson justifies the rising expansion of criminal law as it is a necessary “response to the increasing sophistication of criminal activity,” such as cybercrime. Furthermore, the criminal codes are “democratic products” reflecting “deep-seated popular norms and communal judgments of desert and retribution.’” (The Washington Post)

The beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard is familiar and trusted by most Americans. However, with excessive and knee-jerk plea bargaining, many accused individuals never reach that point in the court process. Plea bargaining preempts reasonable doubt. A trial could result in an innocent man going free, an acquittal. Not so with plea bargaining.

“Nationwide, 97% of federal defendants plead guilty instead of taking their chances at trial. Thirty of 316 convicts exonerated by DNA evidence had entered a guilty plea, according to the Innocence Project.” (New York Daily News)

In truth, times have changed. New leadership is needed to change the course of modern criminal justice in America.

Senator Rand Paul has been advocate for reform in the rising tide of incarceration. Among several avenues of proposed change, Paul has joined forces with an unlikely colleague, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.). In a move to change the rules, and thus the attitude towards both adult and juvenile inmates, Paul and Booker have introduced legislation designed to break the cycle of incarceration for nonviolent offenders. The legislation proposes modifications to shield children from an adversarial system by raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and keeping kids out of solitary confinement. Additionally, it addresses the need to expunge or seal records of juveniles and adults who commit nonviolent crimes, and restore access to government assistance for some low-level drug offenders.

“The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record. Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed, if records were expunged after time served, and if nonviolent crimes did not become a permanent blot preventing employment,” said Paul in a statement. (Huffington Post)

With a prison population that exceeds two million inmates, the need to reassess criminal justice in America is long overdue. The prisons are clogged with low level offenders and juveniles whose poor decisions are ultimately frozen, magnified, and destined to be repeated by a broken system. In the name of reducing expense, excessive plea bargaining mints new inmates every day.

This is terribly shortsighted as the expanding prison population is a financial drain during and post incarceration. It is peculiar that, in the land of opportunity and forgiveness, the government is so eager to throw people away. Rand Paul must be commended as he swims against the tide in this matter. While it is certain that he is concerned about the financial burden associated with imprisonment, it is clear that his focus is more thoughtful and far-reaching than his counterparts. Paul understands the intended, or unintended, consequences of a prison culture that leaves no room for redemption.

Should criminal justice in America be reassessed? Are we headed in the wrong direction when it comes to our penal code? Is the business of incarceration crippling the future of millions of Americans? Leave a comment below and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Written by Adam Michael Hamilton



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