Thursday, December 28, 2006

Quaint Thoughts About Criminal Procedure

A Very Interesting Telephone Conversation

nb. Here is an interesting item I just found, entitled, "Recidivism and Reform, Competing Views of the State's Role in Prison" (by Jordan Ballor)--you will also find this very interesting pdf, "The State of the Law, 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations" (by Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle, of George Washington University's School of Law)
The Acton Institute's article was so good that I have added them to my list of links to Foundations. It is the Power Blog that you might want to sniff around in.

Yesterday I spoke to a kind and generous guy who shall remain anonymous. This person is a fellow attorney and member of the local county bar association. When I told him that the primary “target” of my project was prisoners, he kindly informed me that this group is not his primary concern, and that he sought rather to be serving the unmet legal needs of people outside of prison, making a special point to mention that these are people who have not been convicted of a crime. I should add the term not “yet” been convicted.

It was curious, thinking back now, that he would point out the fact of the conviction rather than the incarceration. So wait, do all prisoners fall into the category of needing to be locked up? Alternatives may be just as effective in some cases. That’s point number one.

It is far too easy for us to think of prisoners as richly having deserved to be imprisoned. In many cases true desserts is justified. In more than a few cases it’s not. An example is drug crimes and morality crimes. But we stray. Focusing on the crime makes it far easier to justify the prisons, to justify building, maintaining and expanding them. But when the price is paid, the sentence is carried to its full conclusion, the prison doors are opened and the prisoners become “free” again.

The attitude on the other end of my anonymous conversation clearly indicates the general nature of the prejudice that all prisoners face as a class, seeking to return to society when they are freed, in hurdling the barrier to “normalcy,” whether or not they needed to be imprisoned. That means in most cases needing a living wage and job, gainful employment. They could just as well have been whipped or put in stocks and sent on their way, back to work, or whatever. Probation for first time offenders is like this. Mandatory minimum sentences changed all that. Has it made society any better, safer, more, well, improved?

Imprisonment is actually banishment. Try moving to a new place and remaking your life. That in itself is punitive. Then try doing this after having slept, like old Rip Van Winkle, for a hundred years (okay, I exaggerated), locked away. All but forgotten.

Not only that, my caller demonstrated the hurdle that we all face, you and me, when seeking not to be charged with a crime, initially, even at the investigative stages, and when seeking to defend against charges of crime after they have been brought against the individual. The prejudicial character of this slice of American life is very strong, and this slice of American life is not insignificant.

The preference to look away is perfectly understandable. At the same time I now find it surprising coming from someone who should have, but clearly has not considered the matter very carefully. I must confess that I was one of those who had failed in an earlier life to consider this matter more carefully, even as I embarked on a career that included a bit of indigent defense work.

It was distasteful, admittedly, (I can not quite say why--perhaps I was rightly or wrongly thinking of raising my family, for their safety, or just of what I could choose or not choose to expose them to as part of my own career, or of my own childhood--maybe these are just excuses--I really do not have the answer, except perhaps to blame it on prejudice) and I chose to try to get away from it. But I can not look the other way any more. I’ve had what some might call a conversion or epiphany. Now I understand the importance of this particular section of American life.

To make a long story short I suggested to my very generous anonymous lawyer, generous for letting me talk to him for so long, that he consider the fact that people in the prisons have at a minimum four (4) (parents, siblings, grandparents, and children) individual immediate family members (and on further thought, four classes of family members) who are more than likely feeling the immediate impact of their situation, that is, of knowing somebody actually locked away in prison.

It is the needs of this cohort or group of American citizens that the Innocence Project hopes to serve the most. At the same time these efforts benefit all of the individuals who have been charged, as well as those who will be charged in the future , because the rights to habeas corpus and other “quaint” matters of criminal and constitutional procedure have a way of directly affecting the way in which the fundamental rights to Criminal Trials, and Appeals are vindicated. I hesitate to say it, but there could well be consequences whether intended or not for related areas of (non-criminal) constitutional law and federal civil procedure. The very nature of all of all of our fundamental rights are at stake when we tinker with habeas corpus, criminal procedure, and the Constitution.

Whenever a fundamental right is at stake you had better believe that it affects you in ways that you might never understand, until one day you wake up and discover that it is gone. When you hear of people given to complaining about the fact that “new” constitutional rights are being “made up” by the “personal preferences” of “activist judges,” you should well consider who is behind these efforts to take away certain hard-won and well established constitutional rights that have been around for so long a time already. Then consider who is trying to save them. Then, after that, think about who benefits.

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