The students is learning (criminal justice edition)

Finished grading exams last night– hooray!!  Anyway, it was one of those really rewarding grading experiences where I was actually quite impressed at how much the students had really learned the key information– at least when it comes to criminal justice policy.  It’s interesting to see, over time, the various articles I assign that really get through to students and make an impact on their thinking.  When it comes to the failures of our criminal justice system and the way overpopulation of our prisons with non-violent offenders, the great Economist piece, Too many laws, too many prisoners” was definitely one of those pieces.   Here’s a key summary from it:

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

It’s great.  If you have any interest in criminal justice issues you need to read it.

The students who did not answer that question item had the choice to answer about the death penalty.  In that case, an article I know I’ve plugged here before– the great New Yorker piece on the surely wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham by the state of Texas– definitely had an impact.   I put a lot of time and thought into what I assign my students (given the rate at which they ignore them, probably too much) so it is really edifying when the articles I choose really get through and leave a lasting impact.  I’m under no illusion that students will remember much at all of anything they learn in my classes, but I’m pretty sure that the truly distrubing lesson of Cameron Todd Willingham will stick with them for a long time.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to The students is learning (criminal justice edition)

  1. Mike says:

    The Cameron Todd Willingham case is a good example of the criminal system using non-scientific evidence to convict a person and execute them. So called evidence of a crime was created by an arson investigator, then that information was passed down and never questioned. It spread around the US and Canada. Perhaps further. It was taken as gospel and no one ever bothered to conduct tests to see if the conjecture fit the facts. Until recently. Now we know that the “puddle” burn marks are not indicative of an accelerate being used. Nor is glass crazing. But hundreds, maybe thousands of people have been convicted on this old wives tale.

    But this is only part of the problem.

    My wife likes to watch what I call “murder shows”, TV shows that showcase a particular real life case every week. They all seem to have the same thing in common no matter what the verdict is, no matter what the evidence is.

    No matter what the defendant does or did, it somehow fits the prosecutors view that the person is guilty. If they don’t show emotion, their cold and calculating. If they do show emotion, they are acting and are cold and calculating. It seems there is nothing that can’t be twisted for the prosecutions case.

    Even after DNA evidence is found to exonerate the defendant, it seems many officers and prosecutors continue to believe in the defendants guilt. It’s frightening. Once the police and prosecutors zero in on a suspect, everything they see and find is coloured by their belief that they already know who did the crime.

    If the husband is a suspect, then he is most likely to have done the crime because the husband is the most likely perpetrator. Even if he didn’t actually do it. So evidence may often be discounted if it doesn’t fit with the preconceived notions.

    The state has, compared to the defendant, almost unlimited funds to mount an investigation. Police. Labs. Assistants. The defendant often has no chance to make an effective defense, especially in cases like this where the lawyers don’t believe the defendant and nobody ever questions the scientific basis of the evidence.
    Just like the FBI’s now discredited ‘lead typing’. Fingerprints have also come under scrutiny, they are highly subjective in many cases, and different ‘experts’ can give different results.

    When different experts can get different results, then the measure of the evidence is subjective and not really scientific. Subjective deals with a persons opinion on evidence. Most courts accept evidence that is subjective as being objective. And people go to jail who shouldn’t.

    The only thing worse then being prosecuted and innocent in the US is the same being done to you in Canada, where the government has a much less stringent requirement to fund defenses. Being charged of a crime in Canada can leave a family destitute, or the charged simply pleading to prevent making his family destitute. We also do not have the ability to demand jury trials in all cases, depending on the charge. And Canadian prosecutors can make a lesser charge so the defendant can’t have a jury trial if the jury of his peers would not convict.

    I don’t know if the same is true in some states? Who decides in the US if you can afford a lawyer?
    Does it vary state to state?

    I always intend to write a short comment. Just a short one.

    • Steve Greene says:

      1) There’s a constitutional right to a jury trial that the prosecution cannot get around.
      2) Who qualifies for publicly-funded defense (and the quality of that defense) is determined at the state level. If a state tried to skimp too much, they’d surely and quickly lose a federal lawsuit based on Constitutional principles.
      3) You do have the occasional short comment 🙂

      • Mike says:

        After reading the Economist article, I changed my mind. The US is the worst place to be charged in. That’s not even considering the prison you’ll wind up in.

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