Tuesday, November 16, 2010

PBS Wants You To Be Scared

I'm not sure what they are doing over at Frontline, but three recent episodes are making me afraid of the police:

October 19 - "Death By Fire"  A man is executed in Texas for arson that killed his three children for a fire that experts believe was an accidental electrical fire.

November 9 - "The Confessions"  Two, four, six, eight, I don't know one hundred thirty-seven men are convicted in a conspiracy to gang rape and murder one woman... yet the man whose DNA matched the crime scene admits that he did it alone.

November 16 - "Law and Disorder"  Two men trying to find medical attention for a gunshot victim in New Orleans about a week after Katrina are beaten.  Gunshot victim is burned in a van, possibly after being allowed to bleed to death, maybe after.  Gunshot came from a policeman.

All of this makes me wonder what is going on with the criminal justice system in our country.  In an age in which technology and scientific evidence should be helping police departments capture the correct suspect, protect the innocent, and remove reasonable doubt in cases of good hunches, it seems that DNA evidence and scientific explanations are being dismissed when it is convenient in favor of the quick nab and the sexy motive.  I don't want to make sweeping conclusions based on three datapoints, but I can see a couple trends that may influence these things.

First, your Prosecutor is an elected official.  It's very sexy and soundbite-y to say that you have an 86% conviction rate.  It's nuanced and wimpy to say that you are a watchdog of the people to make sure that the police department is doing their job in the context of the criminal justice system.  Also, even if you do feel that your job is to challenge the police department to bring you every shred of evidence and research every lead, you do work with them more often that the Defense attorneys, so you don't want to question their authority too much or too often.  You need the police to hand you a case that you can win.  Which leads to the next problem, which to borrow a phrase from Season 3 of The Wire, "juking the stats":  making your stats look as awesome as possible whether or not it may be true.  Why settle for one murder conviction, when you can land 7?  Ruling a fire as accidental equals no crime when an arson conviction adds three felonies to your tally.  Shooting a looter and beating up his friends means that you are tough on crime, so long as you burn the evidence that points otherwise.

Then, there is no watchdog.  Supposedly, the defense attorney in these cases is there to make sure that due process was followed.  That does not work at all when the victim was shot and killed (as happened in Katrina), or when the defendant just does not have the money.  The financial burden is often on the shoulders of the person accused - should he be guilty, he is responsible for the legal bill - should he be not-guilty, he is responsible for the legal bill.  Unable to pay for an attorney, he is put to the mercy of a public defender, who is probably overworked and often not a specialist in the field that is needed.  Add to that the public defender's limited capacity to hire experts in electrical fires or whether it was possible for a murder defendant to drive 500 miles in 4 hours to commit a murder, and the financial hurdles to mount this type of defense are not within the budget of the average municipality, not to mention all but the wealthiest individuals.

Assuming that it is believed that a cop may be dirty, who is supposed to investigate?  The fellow cops?  The county prosecutor?  Why would they do this?  The incentives line-up so that they will keep their mouths shut unless Frontline shows up to do a documentary.  The cops know that they will incur an extra workload - the prosecutor knows this could throw doubt on any case that the cop worked.  There goes the 86% conviction rate needed for re-election.  Who is going to blow the whistle?  Where IS the whistle?

Which comes around to the next trend - the race to the bottom when it comes to taxes and funding of social services.  The annual salary of a New Orleans police officer is $43,070 per year, (okay, according to the website, it's $43,0700.)  That's below the national median household income level by $6K.  So why would a smart and talented high school student realistically choose this as a career?  Long hours, high stress, mediocre pay.  Oh, and people shoot at you.  Sadly, New Orleans is one of the better cities for salary schedules.  The annual salary of a police officer in Corsicana, Texas, is $31,344 per year according to their recent job posting - the same police department that failed to determine whether a fire was arson or accident.  Oh, and you'll need a degree in criminal justice that will cost you $20,000 for two years (maybe $40,000 for 4), when for the same amount of money, you can get yourself a degree for a job where you can feasibly repay your student loans before you die.  Likewise, a newly minted lawyer with $300,000 in student loans is going to firmly look at a $60K assistant district attorney job as the option of last resort.  Plus, to offer those salaries even at that level with declining tax revenues, there's probably fewer cops per capita, fewer new police cars, and larger caseloads on the average cop.  Getting a case together quickly to pass to the prosecutor... or a quick conviction to pass to the prison system is not about laziness, but survival.

So, what's the answer?  Raise property taxes to provide benefits and services that would be attractive to the best and brightest?  Create a criminal justice system in which statistics are divorced from job retention?  Have the role of State's Attorney be an appointed position instead of an elected one?  Have the Police Department or District Attorney's office pay the defense attorney's bill if the case goes to trial and results in an acquittal?  Something totally awesome which I haven't considered?  I don't know - you tell me... and if you can make at least three references to The Wire and Clay Davis, I'd be happy.

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