Justice should be goal

Published 10:33 am Friday, June 26, 2015

America has certainly had attention focused upon the innermost aspects of our criminal justice system recently, from the events in Ferguson to Cleveland, New York City and South Carolina. But more important than the daily news might be to ask, what can we learn about justice in America in the 21st century?

Clearly the “thin blue line” prevents cops from reporting their peer’s ignoble acts taken under pressure in the field. The cop who reports on another is considerably more likely to find their fellow officers confronting them and defending the officer who violated his or her oath to protect and serve. That “blue line” is a part of a strong police culture that needs to end.

We have also learned that expecting prosecutors to oversee the actions of the cops they work with daily is a deep flawed concept. Many prosecutors would sooner put their hand in a hornet’s nest than indict a cop.

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And since virtually all grand juries indict only when prosecutors ask for indictment, that part of the system is no longer functional when considering excessive force or other policing actions that harm civilians.

What is called for here is civilian oversight, boards constructed of concerned citizens who review, at the very least, all deaths of unarmed citizens while in police custody.

Yet, beyond issues with police poorly selected, or undertrained, or stressed to extremes resulting in bad decisions on the job, there are serious problems with many prosecutor’s offices and priorities.

Too often the prosecutors, with endless resources and authority, have a “win at any cost” basis and use their power to shape evidence, validate questionable witness accounts, and conceal conflicting evidence including evidence exonerating defendants.

In 2013 alone, 87 convictions were overturned as wrongful convictions, including the convictions of Daniel Taylor and Reginald Griffin. Taylor was convicted in Illinois and spent 20 years in prison for a murder that happened while he was in police custody for an unrelated incident. Griffin was convinced in Missouri for a prison stabbing and served nearly three decades before an appellate attorney discovered that another prisoner had a sharpened screwdriver confiscated by guards when leaving the attack location. The prosecution had withheld that evidence.

We have also discovered, as FBI Director James Comey commented this spring, that there really is racial bias in policing that brings about a “disconnect” between police agencies and communities of color.

That bias, sometimes simply “the young black kid must have done it” can permeate a justice system from the cop on the beat to the judge on the bench, resulting in expedient convictions, lengthy sentences, and innocent men convinced that guilty pleas are their only choice.

There is much work to be done before we can promise those who find themselves approached by police that their experience will be free, fair, and handled with as much respect as their conduct can allow. Likewise, there must be progress before anyone entering the judicial system can know that justice is the goal of the system, not convictions.

But, while these discussions must take place in our society, let us never lose sight that most of our police, our prosecutors and our judges serve with courage and honor. What we owe to all of them is open and honest dialogue about their roles and our support of their difficult jobs.

Making justice in America ever better is the job of all of us, taken not from misunderstandings and anger, but from concern for protecting both those who offer up their commitments to protect and serve and those who insure that respect for our laws is never set aside.


Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.