After advocating for prison reform, criminal justice reform and juvenile justice reform for 10 years there are times when I run out of new topics (for me) to write about. I can always count on the news and the media to spur me on. Thankfully the media and other advocates are starting to speak about a topic that I have long known to be the biggest obstacle in prison/justice reform and that is the free hand of District Attorney's to drive the wheels of justice (or injustice as it were).
Anyone who has been through the process of arrest, charges, jail, hearings and finally sentencing, will tell you that at no point in time is there consideration on the part of the District Attorney's office that they are wrong. In addition, any police officer or district attorney will tell you (if they speak candidly) that THEY are not required to tell the truth during questioning, during interviews or in the court room. It is all a show, a staged and scripted presentation for the jurors and the public based on their pieced together assumption of the crime. That is not true of course, in eyewitness accounts or crimes caught on film but still can be true in confessions and especially plea agreements. As a matter of fact I believe that the use and overuse of plea agreements have been the downfall of true justice.
I will use a case in point, one that I am very familiar with which is the story of Jonny. You may want to believe that his is an isolated story after I tell it but I have many others who have told the same story concerning their experience. Jonny was 17 years old when the police first spoke to him at school without an adult present, no parent was contacted and their was no legal representation. He was also 17 years old when police investigators came to his workplace and convinced him to take a ride to the police station for questioning while another officer drove his car to the station. His mother was greeted by an officer outside her place of work and told that her son was at the police station. During the 2 1/2 hours of questioning he was never given miranda rights and in spite of an alibi he was arrested. His arrest was based solely on the statement of a 16 year old. His home and his room were never searched. The district attorney, over the course of the next 2 1/2 years NEVER spoke to him. The prosecutors did not know who he was, who his family was, what kind of relationships he had, what his life was like at all. Everything they presented to the media and in the courtrooms was all fabricated based on the story they decided to tell. To this day the truth of the events of the crime are not known. In order to pressure Jonny into accepting a plea agreement for something he had minimal involvement with the prosecution charged him with 32 (that's THIRTY TWO) counts. They terrified him by telling him that they could send him away for the rest of his life. In the end they wore him down and he accepted a plea agreement. He got 68 years.....and after 2 1/2 years was finally sentenced to prison, which was all the DA wanted.
Recent findings from research shows that our current incarceration levels will not decrease with the end of the war on drugs. As a matter of fact those incarcerated on drug charges make up a very small percentage of the population of prisons. Why is that? Haven't we been told that the war on drugs was futile and we have incarcerated too many people as a result of those policies? Yes it is true. The REST of the truth is that DA's all around the country file numerous charges against almost everyone arrested to insure a conviction or to get those persons who have been arrested to agree to a plea agreement and avoid the long process of trial. Drug charges alone do not win many points for a DA but felony charges do such as "robbery" or "intent to sell" or any other charge that raises the stakes in the game.
Why would a DA "overcharge" an arrested person? For purely political gain. The more convictions the better the chances of reelection, the more publicity the better the chance of furthering a political career. It is also true that the biggest opposition to prison and sentencing reform comes from District Attorney's offices and their lobbyists. Yes you read that right...lobbyists. While many advocates and organizations have focused their energy and attention on the policies and prison sentences that came from the war on drugs; other advocates have focused on repealing the legislation that lengthened sentences or caused greater impact on sentences. Many of these efforts have been hit with great opposition....NOT from the public, but from DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S. I have long believed that we would not see meaningful reduction in incarceration rates or the elimination of harsh sentencing practices until district attorney's and their prosecutorial practices were reformed and brought under control. It is not in the interest of District Attorney's to reveal the truth of any situation...only that which supports their allegations. You can read an article on this subject here.
Then we need to consider the impact these distortions of truth, zealous prosecutions and incredible sentences have had on peoples lives and what happens when you decide to buck the system. Travion Blount (then 15) robbed some teenagers at a house party at gunpoint. His older friends took plea agreements and received sentences of 10 and 13 years. The prosecutors threw every charge they could think of at Travion and by the time he was sentenced he was looking to serve 6 life sentences...at 17 years old....for robbery.
There have been recent accusations of prosecutorial misconduct in the United States and thanks to a recent law that allows video of high court hearings, we are beginning to see just how big the issue of prosecutorial misconduct is.
Judge Alex Kozinski asked Vienna if his boss, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, wanted to defend a conviction "obtained by lying prosecutors." If Harris did not back off the case, Kozinski warned, the court would "name names" in a ruling that would not be "very pretty."
Judge Kim Wardlaw wanted to know why Riverside County prosecutors presented a murder-for-hire case against the killer but did not charge the man they said had arranged the killings.
"It looks terrible," said Judge William Fletcher.
The January hearing in Pasadena, posted online under new 9th Circuit policies, provided a rare and critical examination of a murder case in which prosecutors presented false evidence but were never investigated or disciplined
The article continues with this:
A 2010 report by the Northern California Innocence Project cited 707 cases in which state courts found prosecutorial misconduct over 11 years. Only six of the prosecutors were disciplined, and the courts upheld 80% of the convictions in spite of the improprieties, the study found. (Read the article here)
As with all things that we, as citizens of this country, are trying to comprehend and change, we need to educate ourselves, stop giving power over to political offices without accountability and DEMAND change. The lives of people are at stake and so are the futures of our communities.
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