United States courts are supposed to be the guardians of justice. I think not. Especially not in The Sunshine State of Florida.
This legislative session, Florida’s lawmakers will be asked to reconsider how the state deals with criminals. The “tough on crime” mantra isn’t working, according to a report recently released.
The Sunshine State is among the very toughest when it comes to crime, with an incarceration rate more than 30 percent above the national average. Since 1970, the number of Floridians in prison has grown more than four times as quickly as the state’s population overall. There are more people serving life without parole here than anywhere else in the nation, and those who are released don’t fair well—one in three released convicts return to prison within three years. (T.S. Strickland)
TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has warned of a crisis in Florida’s prisons for years.
“The criminal justice system is broken,” he said recently. “The state cannot support 96,000 inmates.”
Fueling the crisis, Brandes and others say, is that judges are required to sentence offenders to a pre-defined number of years in prison based on the crimes they committed, often called “mandatory minimums.”
Hundreds of individuals have spent time in prison for crimes that they did not commit. United States courts are supposed to be the guardians of justice. Yet, incorrect verdicts occur far too often. Condemning the innocent makes a joke of justice, robbing men and women of dignity, relationship, time, opportunity, and freedom. Wrongful convictions also endanger the public because locking up an innocent person means the genuine guilty party stroll free.
The tragedy of wrongful convictions results from multiple factors. Eyewitness misidentifications, because of poor crime scene visibility and bad police procedures, are involved in many cases. Coerced false confessions from defendants, lying jailhouse informants, and bad forensics science also bear responsibility for locking innocent people behind bars. When public defense lawyers are incompetent and prosecuting attorneys suppress important evidence, wrongful convictions increase. Because roughly half of states have no laws requiring crime scene evidence to be preserved, evidence is often unavailable for reevaluation once a person is incarcerated, making confirming or denying pleas of innocence nearly impossible. In addition, starting life over again is very difficult for the exonerees in the 26 states that require no compensation for their time spent in prison.
Increasing the integrity of the system
Prison Fellowship calls for immediate action so that no more men and women are punished unjustly. In order to make witness identifications more accurate, police officers administering lineups should be unaware of the suspect’s identity so as not to influence witnesses’ decisions, should ask witnesses to assess their level of confidence in their identifications, and should videotape the entire process. Defendant confessions should also be videotaped. This protects against coercion by officers trying to prove guilt.
Prosecutors using jailhouse informants should disclose all information that could compromise the informants’ credibility. Only the best forensics science practices should be used to decide guilt. Because DNA testing is the most reliable test for evidence, all states should guarantee inmates’ access to crime scene DNA and should preserve this evidence for the entire length of the prison term. Prosecutors should undergo training on ethical practices and the causes of wrongful conviction.
States should maintain teams of proficient defense attorneys that are able to devote the necessary time to each defendant. Also, all states should enact compensation statutes that provide enough money for exonerees to put their lives back together. These practical steps can reduce the chances of wrongful convictions and increase our justice system’s integrity.
CHARLES AJOLOKO, MOMMY HASN’T FORGOTTEN YOU. THE FIGHT CONTINUES!