I think more than anything else that’s what explains why the political class has been so slow to recognize and address such an obvious problem: namely, that we have way too many people locked up in the United States.
In political terms, having the US Attorney General acknowledge the obvious is real progress. And to those of us who have been harping on the same thing for years before the DoJ ever finally admitted how wrong it has been, the fact that there is such a seemingly instant consensus is at once satisfying and disconcerting: there’s vindication, of course; but it’s also true that an easy consensus is a symptom of the same inertia that caused the problem to begin with.
The focus on imprisoned non-violent drug offenders is off. That’s a problem, but it’s not anywhere close to the real problem. The Central Park Jogger case is a lot closer. Almost a quarter century later no one in a position to do so has done anything to make those men whole; even after every sane or rational person has had to acknowledge the wrong that was done, some in a position of authority still hide behind a risible fiction that somehow those kids were “guilty” of something or other anyway. The principal players, most of whom are still around plying their trade, even in the face of a damning documentary aired on PBS, have not only been entirely let off the hook, but can “no comment” the whole thing and pay no price for that. The New York Times agrees because, you know, careers.
There is no sense of shame and disgust, and there should be. And when I say a “sense” of it, I mean something beyond writing an editorial in the New York Times hedging the whole way through. I can keep writing about the case but let’s face it, no one important is going to do anything based on what I write here.
A price has to be paid. Talk about cheap grace. The legal profession seems to be the aficionado of it.
The criminal justice system, and that means the lawyers and judges who run it – is such a failure. I often say that the police are right about 75-80% of the time. It’s the responsibility of the criminal justice system to catch the other 20-25%. How much do we actually catch? About 5% of that. Is there any other institution that can continue with a 5% success rate? Wouldn’t we just shut such a miserable failure of an institution down?
This is the real problem, and the danger now is that we’re just going to accept the “solution” that’s the easiest to accept, that this is all about legislative over-criminalization and not a deeper problem with the legal profession and the judiciary. In most other areas of endeavor the laws of nature themselves quickly assert themselves and overcome the tendency to inertia. But cause and effect in a justice system – especially the criminal justice system – is far less obvious. Doctors bury their mistakes; we lock away ours and brand them for life so that they don’t matter. Or, we think they don’t.
Of course that’s not true. They do matter, and the terrible cost of our mistakes are always being paid. Just not by the right people.