Criminal Justice: How Do We Fix the System?

It depends on whether the support for Troy Davis can be converted into a lasting movement.

Getty Images
Getty Images

But it’s not just the death penalty or bad prosecutors that demonstrate the depth and breadth of the problems in our criminal-justice system. In fact, we are learning how often cases that seemed rock-solid have been built on sand. This year the Supreme Court will take up a case involving the use of eyewitness identification, which has been proved to be shockingly unreliable.

In the book Picking Cotton, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and the man she wrongly identified as having raped her in North Carolina in 1984, Ronald Cotton, co-authored a memoir that examines how the certainty of a victim in identifying a criminal defendant — especially when laden with the complexities of race and gender — is often unreliable. But juries are powerfully persuaded by a victim’s certain identification of a criminal suspect.

The Supreme Court will also hear at least five cases involving ineffective assistance of counsel, including one in which lawyers at a major law firm essentially abandoned the representation of their death row client while a petition for review was pending.

With 2 million people behind bars, the U.S. is the world’s leading incarcerator. After war making, imprisonment is our most “successful” growth industry. And this says a lot about who we are as a nation.

We have, as in so many other aspects of our public policy, taken the short road. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of our bloated prison population — including the school-to-prison pipeline, which creates incentives to put troubled children out of school; or fixing the broken urban economy that has left so many young men without real prospects for meaningful work; or rejecting urban “stop and frisk” policies that force young men into early contact with the criminal-justice system; or reforming our draconian drug laws, which impose harsh penalties for drug possession and criminalize drug addiction, we build prisons and warehouse millions of young men and women for as long as we can. 

In those prisons, we have turned away from providing the education, psychological support and work training that could rehabilitate those who have run afoul of the law. Instead we’ve imposed years of solitary confinement — treatment proven to unhinge the mind — and allowed violence to flourish. Prison rape has become the stuff of late-night jokes and is largely regarded as part of the punishment a prisoner may face.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court held that overcrowding (pdf) in California’s prisons threatens the health and safety of prisoners. Allowing the proliferation of private, for-profit prisons is perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of our decision to outsource the solution to problems best addressed by better public policies.

A society is best judged not by how it treats its best citizens but by how it treats its worst. That’s why the death penalty — even if imposed on the guilty and unrepentant (it’s worth noting that one of the white supremacists who murdered James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998 was also executed yesterday) — so powerfully reflects the values that lie at the heart of communities that impose it.

But it is not the death penalty alone that should command our attention. If it is possible to draw something positive from the state of Georgia’s decision to execute Troy Davis, it should be the commitment of the hundreds of thousands who signed petitions and marched and wrote letters on his behalf to turn their attention to the full range of inequities and flaws that plague our criminal-justice system. Pick any one of them, and press for change.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill, who teaches at the law school of the University of Maryland, writes about legal issues for The Root.

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