Archive for September, 2007

Over-prosecution and the Jena 6 (Million)

Is Justice Color Blind?

The “Jena 6” 

Last week’s tale of the Jena 6 is a news story that went largely unnoticed (except for social-media sites like Digg) until 20, 000 people showed up in a small southern town for a protest.  But when it did finally notice and weigh in, the AP wrote a surprisingly well-balanced piece.

As the article shows, the real issues in Jena are complex and nuanced, but the questions raised by the protesters are indeed valid.  And unfortunately, they are nearly identical to the story of Shaquanda Cotton that I commented on in this post

But I will repeat them here once again for emphasis, based on the primary themes of the Jena 6 protesters:

  1. Are African Americans treated differently by the criminal justice system?
    1. Are African Americans charged with harsher crimes?
    2. Are African Americans given harsher sentences if convicted?
  2. Is there an epidemic of criminal overcharging by prosecutors that most severely affects minorities and the poor?
  3. Are local authorities (over) using the Justice System as a tool to resolve trivial matters? 

De Minimis Non Curat Praetor” – “The Law is not Interested in Trivial Things” 

Regardless of ones opinions of the racial issues in Jena, at least one issue becomes obvious: the problem of over-prosecution.

No denies that these 6 Jena youths deserve some sort of (hopefully non-judicial) punishment for their misdeeds in beating up a hapless white southerner.  But I think most rational people would see the local DA’s felony charges of “attempted murder” and “assault with a deadly weapon (a shoe in this case)” as unnecessarily excessive. 

I guess gone are the days when a local police officer might make a misguided youth write a lengthy apology letter and pay damages for such smallish offenses.  Gone too are the days where attorneys remember their law school training and the concept of “de minimis” – that there are actually things too trivial to be addressed by the legal system.

But excessive charges are really just something that is now built into the modern day justice system.  Sure, sometimes prosecution and defense meet in the middle, but sometimes they don’t.  When they don’t, the criminal convictions and punishments handed out by the Justice Systems become disproportionately harsh.  Ultimately ruining the lives of those affected.  And those affected are disproportionately male, African American, and poor.

“Ubi Injuria, Ibi Remedia” – “Where there is a Wrong, there is a Remedy.”

So how do we solve the crime itself of minority over-prosecution? 

The first step to solving most problems is measurement.  Do we even measure the race and income levels of those prosecuted?  Can we compare prosecutions and outcomes based on race?  You fill out a federal race survey form when you apply for a job, why not make investigators, DAs, and judges fill out a similar form when someone is investigated, charged, convicted, and sentenced.  Let’s start collecting some statistics, tracking these disparities and their sources, and quantify to what extent these disparities truly exist.

Then how do we solve the larger problem of over-prosecution in general?

This is a tough one.  The prosecution system derives maximum benefit from maximizing conviction rates and punishments.  So one possible solution is to have better educated and trained grand juries, justices of the peace, and local magistrates who stop petty crimes from advancing in the criminal justice system to begin with.  Right now, these preliminary checks in the system amount to little more than rubber stamps.  Raising the burden of proof that one must present these bodies could be one solution, but might be difficult in practice.  Giving local police and justices of the peace tools that allow them to exercise non-judicial punishments might be another solution.  

The real and somewhat more difficult solution is quite frankly for everyone in the justice system to exercise a bit more restraint and common sense.  Now, how do we write a law that guarantees that?

The Jena 6 Million 

There are many millions more just like the Jena 6 in our criminal justice system right now.  For relatively minor offenses (mostly drug convictions), they face excessive charges, draconian punishments, and felony convictions that change the context and potential of their lives forever. 

Now is the time to examine the epidemic of over-charging and over-prosecution.   Until we do, youths from Jena and the rest of the country will continue to enter our prisons at an ever-increasing and alarming rate. 

The US Space Pen and Russian Space Pencil Urban Legend (Well Sorta)

We are so accepting of Urban Legends because they usually conform quite nicely with what we already believe.  So nicely in fact, that there is hardly any need to doubt them or bother checking the facts.  So we believe that Pop Rocks and Coke are lethal, people are desperate enough that they steal kidneys, there are bodies hidden in the matresses of our hotel rooms, and so on.

For me, such was the case with the NASA Space Pen.  The tale, repeated on TV, the Internet, and by most Russians I’ve ever met goes something like this:

The US Space Program spent millions of dollars developing a Pen that could be used to write in zero-gravity.  The Russian Space Program opted for another solution to this problem: they simply used a pencil.

The only problem with this perfect metaphor of the two space programs is this: it too is an urban legend.  Well, mostly anyway.  You see a company (Fischer) did spend $1M (of its own money) to develop the pressurized, zero-gravity space pen.  It sold the pens to NASA for $2 a piece (NASA bought 40 of them) but went on to become an enormous commercial success.  Who else uses them?  Yep, the Russian Cosmonauts.  You see a pencil could too easily break and pose a FOD hazard.      

As Urban Legends go, this one mostly sticks to the facts:

  1. The US Military and Space programs do like to waste a lot of money
  2. Someone did spend a million dollars (of 1960s money) on this
  3. They did use pencils in space until this nifty invention came along  

So I think I’m going to stick to this Urban Legend, it is a heck of a lot simpler to explain at cocktail parties.  And then I can use this to segway into how to use a microwave to dry your pet and perhaps the latest sightings of bat-boy.

Lions and Tigers and Nukes – Oh My!

Today’s headline about nuclear warheads being mistakenly carried aboard a B-52 reminded me yet again that journalists need to take a few history lessons.  The period in history I am referring to?  Apparently a little-known period sometimes referred to as the Cold War.  You see kids we used to sail and fly nuclear bombs all over the world every day. 

Listen up you whippersnappers!  In a program call Airborne Alert, approximately a dozen nuclear-armed bombers were in the air at any given moment.  You may have even seen a film about it – Dr. Strangelove (you gotta know how to relate to these kids!).  The airborne program lasted for a smallish time period of approximately 20 years, but nuclear-armed subs still sail the seas – each sub with enough firepower to destroy a country (200 warheads each). 

Heck, one of these bombers full of nukes, Buzz One Four, tragically came to its final rest a few miles away from my home town in 1964 – apparently where it, minus its nukes, still rests (entire very detailed story here).  In another notable incident, a sub went down in the Atlantic and neither it nor its nukes were ever recovered.  These “Broken Arrows” seemed to happen with at least some regularity (at least 26 that we know of). 

So journalistic kids, this is a little technique that I like to call: putting things into historical and world perspective.  Yes it was a mistake, but no, it wasn’t a bombing mission, just transport.  Isn’t the bigger worry all of the nuclear material that we don’t know where it is or how it is tracked – from such unstable regions of the world as Russia and Pakistan? 

Oh I see – along with not taking a (or sleeping through your) history class, you also skipped Geography – excellent – well thanks for doing your best to help us make informed choices anyway.  Now, you kids get outta my yard and go read some history books.