Criminal Justice: Invisible in Presidential Campaigns

Criminal Justice: Invisible in Presidential Campaigns October 18, 2012

Balko has an article at the Huffington Post about the fact that criminal justice issues are almost always ignored in presidential campaigns — and in most political campaigns above the local level, for that matter — other than to issue perpetual calls for stronger, harsher and more punitive measures. He lists some of the issues that need to be talked about:

There are other problems. The onset of DNA testing has revealed that our criminal justice system is more flawed and prone to error than most of the country probably suspected. The gaps in the system that produced the wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing are undoubtedly at work in other cases as well.

Other issues we won’t hear about in this election: The common perception that prison rape is part of the punishment that comes with a felony conviction. The disturbing amount of prosecutorial misconduct within the Department of Justice–and the lack of accountability for the prosecutors who cheat.

There’s an important debate to be had about privatizing prisons, and whether it’s wise to have a government-created industry with a bottom line dependent on keeping as many people locked up for as long as possible. There’s the vastly under-reportednational scandal of corrupt crime labs and corrupted forensic evidence. The latest incident involves a crime lab technician in Massachusetts who may have faked thousands of drug tests.

We’re in a 30-year trend toward police militarization, a phenomenon that has been driven by federal incentives.

Neither Obama nor Romney have said a word about these issues. How could they? Romney has to please law-and-order conservatives and Obama’s record on these issues is nothing short of appalling (his administration, for example, has argued against a right to access DNA evidence that could prove an inmate’s innocence and in favor of absolute prosecutorial immunity). But Balko rightly blames a public that is both ignorant and apathetic about this sort of thing:

Politicians are risk-averse creatures of habit. For decades they’ve been trained to mutter the same soundbites about crime. Polls show America’s opinions on many of these issues are shifting, but few people actually vote on them. And the people most affected when the crime policy pendulum swings too far toward government power aren’t large enough in number or stature to force a debate.

These aren’t commercial-ready, culture warring, fundraising issues like something some candidate said about rape, funding for Big Bird, or whether or not Clint Eastwood is losing his mind. They’re difficult, important, and — especially for the communities they affect most — they’re immensely consequential. But until there’s a penalty at the polls for looking the other way, most candidates will avoid the political risks that come with tackling them.

All true, and tragic. That’s one reason why I write and speak on those subjects so often, because I think people need to know just how about America’s criminal injustice system really is — and how much it is damaging the country.

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  • Maybe if the marijuana legalization proposals make it in Colorado or Washington, it might indicate a turning point in the ‘drug war’. At least it might get people talking about it.

  • baal

    (fwiw, I’m white and actually have done this)

    If you want to give a Democratic politician the willies, meet with them and then pull out a chart of the incarceration rates by race. They know about the tragedy and they know that were they to take a big public stand (or even just vote against the ‘saftey enhancement bills) they would pay a price politically. For them (usually, they are exceptions), it’s a rock and a hard place. I gave up after 1 republican. They usually either don’t see the problem or don’t think it’s a problem or convincingly lie that they don’t get it.

    Aside from raising awareness, I don’t see a path to a real change. The inherency is too high (if you can forgive a high school debate term). The (R) are in bed with a ‘prison industrial complex’ and groups like ALEC are pushing ever more criminal enhancements and longer jail terms – and why not. At the price of costing folks liberty, they make money. They then use the money they make to push for more penalty ‘enhancements’; it’s a vicious cycle. As one part of many things, we must stop allowing for-profit prisons. Worse, the (R) know that minorities don’t vote for them. They also know that voter turn out is directly releated to income – the poor have a much harder time voting than the well of do. So far as mass incarceration of minorities keeps them poor (population level impact) and not voting, the (R) like it.

    I’ve already gone on too long for a comment thread but this is about 1-2 points on what’s wrong with the structure of US society regarding criminal justice. I could probably go for 20-30 points with out repeating myself.

    TL;DR – For profit prisons create perverse incentives and should be banned by law; The left needs to create its own “ALEC” and start spamming the State legislatures with a broad slate of criminal justice reforms.

  • Timely story:

    Two men served 10 years and three served 20 years based upon coerced false confessions.

  • scienceavenger

    The United State incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation, 738 per 100,000, and far more in absolute terms, 2 million+, compared to runners up China (1.5M), Russia (870,000), and Brazil (361,000).

    The next time some dittohead fool starts yammering about how America is the freest nation on earth, shove these stats in his face. Home of the free my ass.

  • ottod

    We have the highest incarceration rate driven by, i. a., the criminalization of nearly all levels of drug use, even though the majority of those crimes are victimless, and for-profit prisons. Do either of those things make any sense to anyone?

  • I really appreciate that people care about this sort of thing and raise their voice. The system is broken, and the people in power are afraid to deal with it honestly.

  • peterfran

    Of course families worrying if kids are safe, car’s going to get stolen, or house broken into, don’t tender much sympathy for criminals. Yet alas, the jails and courts aren’t filled with these types of lawbreakers. Morning Traffic Court files an endless stream of struggling and cooperative citizens; suspended licenses, lack of insurance, DUI, expired registrations, improper child or seat belt, speeding and failures to stop. A day at the courthouse, witnesses hundreds of nicely dressed respectful people trying to keep their houses, jobs, and families. Likewise, the majority of inmates at the local jail aren’t charged with violent offences; but drug convictions, prostitution, parole and restraining order violations, ID theft. Not the crooks and rapists terrorizing neighborhoods.

    So to keep kids safe, they’re brought to private schools, while homes and autos are protected by alarms and insurance. Being that security, just like courtroom justice, is readily available for a price. And this is hardly new. But what is new, is the amount of prohibtionary laws, non-violent felonies, and discretionary employment based on prior convictions which no longer are wiped clean from a job application regardless of how much time has gone by since the person paid their debt to society. And this ‘zero tolerance’ approach is what’s actually increasing crime. Because condemning people to perpetual second-class citizenship doesn’t give them any incentive to participate in a legally corrupt society, but has just the opposite effect, since they might as well terrorize ‘our’ communities. What do they have to lose?