Op-Ed by C J Oakes
The United States is being swept up in a plethora of criminal justice reform bills. From Alaska to Wyoming, 46 states have some form of criminal justice reform bill pending or passed. Some seek to reform corrections, some sentencing, and some a combination of both. However, one key element is missing in all criminal justice reform bills…accountability.
“Accountability: the quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions <public officials lacking accountability>” – Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Notice the example given by Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “public officials lacking accountability.” In general, a dictionary gives an example that clearly illustrates a definition. In the case of accountability, this dictionary uses the lack of such on the part of our elected and appinted officials. Why?
Because this resonates with the public, the readers, those using the dictionary. It resonates because the public, We the People, are starting to see a lack of accountability by those entrusted to serve the public interests.
This is further highlighted by the fact that public corruption arrests rose steadily from 1995 to 2008. Starting at that point, instances of public corruption arrests declined. Why?
Why Did Public Corruption Arrests Decline from 2008 to 2014?
One cannot state from the data the reason for the decline in public corruption after a decade of increases, but one can make an educated guess. In 2008, the housing bubble burst and with it, national attention turned to the financial markets. Out of that situation came sweeping changes and new charges to those taking unfair advantage of the system. Thus, the Department of Justice turned more attention to those crimes. Naturally, public corruption crimes would be less investigated and therefore there would be fewer official charges. This would be the assumption. Studies would be needed to either verify or invalidate this assumption.
Yet, setting this aside, it is rather easy for the DOJ and other agencies to prosecute official corruption. Most of these charges involve misuse of public funds, ethics violations (often politically-motivated), and misappropriations. All of these involve in one way or another, money.
But when it comes to holding public officials accountable for their decisions related to peoples lives, there are no laws in place. Public officials are, for the most part, shielded from accountability when lives are at stake.
The only exceptions to this are the instances when police violate the law for personal gain. For instance, one study shows that police officers are arrested in the United States at an average rate of three per day. The charges range from sexual assualt/rape to extortion.
Still, to be clear, few laws exist to protect the public from police and prosecutors who falsify evidence.
This situation was especially highlighted in August 2016 in Philadelphia, PA. Anthony Wright had been convicted in 1991 of rape and murder. After serving 25 years, his conviction was overturned because the evidence proved he did not commit the crime. Despite this, state prosecutors chose to retry the case. According to the Innocence Project, which helped Mr. Wright receive justice,
“At the retrial, it was disclosed that DNA testing of clothing alleged by police to have been worn by Wright to commit the crime were not his and could not have been in his home as the police claimed.”
This evidence was available at the time of his trial, though the trial was clearly botched. Mistakes happen. However,
“Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right.”
Once the evidence was clearly shown to be incorrect and the man to be innocent, the matter should have been dropped. Instead, prosecutors in Philadephia chose to waste public funds and another two years of Mr. Wright’s life in a futile effort to save face. These prosecutors should be held accountable. Period.
Yet, they are not. They are free to go their way, serving injustice to others. They get to dine at their country clubs and live as if they answer to no one. This is wrong. There is no other way to say it.
The State has an Obligation to Serve Justice
Throughout history, a simple maxim of justice has carried mankind through some of its darkest periods. Although the United States has become a “nation of law,” we have largely forgotten this maxim. It states simply,
“Eye for an eye.”
In other words, for justice to be done, the punishment should fit the crime. In the case where there is no crime and a punishment is still meted out, when that comes to light, there must be a balancing of the scales of justice. If this does not happen, then justice has NOT been served.
How can the scales of justice balance when someone has been wrongly convicted by fabricated evidence?
When a mistake has been made, that is understandable. We are human. Mistakes happen.
However, far too often mistakes are not mistakes, but rather intentional miscarriages of justice. What is lacking is accountability.
Police are known to use “drops” when a suspect does not have a weapon; forensics scientists have been found to match the evidence to a suspect rather than seek the truth; and prosecutors have been found to ignore and even hide exculpatory evidence.
In all such instances of official misconduct, the responsible thing for society to do is to hold them accountable. Rather than fine them or give them paid time off, they should face the same penalty faced by their victim.
- If an innocent person faced life in prison, the prosecutor should face the same penalty if found guilty of malfeasance.
- If an innocent person faced the death penalty, the police who fabricated evidence should face the same if found guilty of doing so.
- If an innocent person was added to the sex offender registry, the forensic scientist falsifying reports to fit the suspect should have the same scarlet letter placed on his/her forehead.
- If a witness testifies falsely, they too should face the same sentence as they wrongly added to another.
- If anyone, ANYONE conducts themselves in such a way as to ensure an innocent person is railroaded by the justice system, when it comes to light, they should face the same penalty if convicted of their crime.
In other words, let eye for an eye return to the U.S. Justice system. Bring accountability into the mix and see how quickly the scales of justice become more balanced.
If lawmakers really want criminal justice reform, make those who make life and death decisions accountable for their intentional travesties of justice. This will do far more good than any sentencing reform.