Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Crisis of Confidence in Our Criminal Justice System

I mentioned the other day that the most deeply troubling take-away for me after watching the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer" was the inability of our criminal justice system to correct mistakes and hold members of that system accountable. We've seen the same thing happen in many of the cases of police shootings - most recently in Cleveland with the shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice. The whole "bad apple" defense falls apart when the system does everything in its power to cover up for the corruption of those bad apples.

I've heard some comparisons lately to another recent movie - Spotlight - about the journalists who were responsible for uncovering Boston's sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. The parallel that has been drawn is about the lengths those journalists at the Boston Globe had to go to in order to get the Church (and community) to admit that it had a problem. Simple proof wasn't enough. The evidence had to be overwhelmingly conclusive. In the process, the Church invited it's own crisis of confidence.

Ta Nehisi-Coates sees the same thing happening to law enforcement right now.
When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers. The neighbor-on-neighbor violence in Chicago, and in black communities around the country, is not an optical illusion. Policing is (one) part of the solution to that violence. But if citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work. And in Chicago, it is very hard to muster reasons for trust.

When Bettie Jones’s brother displays zero confidence in an investigation into the killing of his sister, he is not being cynical. He is shrewdly observing a government that executed a young man and sought to hide that fact from citizens. He is intelligently assessing a local government which, for two decades, ran a torture ring. What we have made of our police departments America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy. A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.
The extent to which you see things as seriously as Coates is probably directly proportional to the degree to which you have been victimized by one of the various ways that corruption has been manifested in different parts of the country. But it seems clear to me that many of the institutions of our criminal justice system are responding to the concerns in much the same way that the Catholic Church tried to deny and cover up the incidents of sexual abuse among priests. We can't afford that kind of crisis of confidence in this system.

If you think that this is merely a problem that affects people of color in urban areas, the story of Steven Avery in Making a Murderer should disabuse you of that. But here's another tell-tale sign of that lack of confidence in the system...and one that reaches a more positive conclusion, perhaps for the wrong reason. The editors of the Dallas Morning News report that Texans seem to be losing their appetite for the death penalty.
“People have become a lot more aware of some of the critical problems that persistently affect capital cases,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “Probably the most significant issue is questions of innocence.”...

Confidence in the system’s integrity is waning. It should only follow that support for the death penalty follows suit.
What should also follow suit is that we take a good hard look at the system's lack of integrity and do something about it. That starts with admitting that there is a problem.

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