May 24, 2021
Eight years ago I wrote my first column for what was GateHouse Media. Over those years, GateHouse expanded to include More Content Now and many more local newspapers. I have had the pleasure of writing 406 columns.
This is the end of the line - More Content Now ends its run this weekend. In this final column, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned observing the criminal justice system over the years.
First, the criminal justice system is nuanced and complicated. It is also overused - from our schools to our homes and criminal statutes that don’t even require intent to get a conviction - people today are at the greatest risk in the history of this country to encounter the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, there is little consistency in policy and lawmaking from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Unlike the medical profession where diagnostic and treatment procedures are very similar nationwide, no such national consensus exists in the criminal justice system.
This hodge-podge of lawmaking may be best exemplified by the death penalty. More than 23 states have abandoned the death penalty. Ten states never adopted state-sponsored death after 1976 in what has become known as the modern era of the death penalty. Since then, 13 more states have outlawed the death penalty and three states have in place moratoriums on executions.
Yet, the federal government which has the death penalty on the books, and hadn’t carried out and execution in 17 years prior to July 2020, executed 10 people right up to end of President Donald Trump’s term.
There are roughly 2,553 men and women on death row. In the last five years 91 people have been executed. The death penalty has become arbitrary in the way executions are carried out.
The militarization of the police has exploded into a serious problem in the United States. During the process of creating quasi-military police units, law enforcement officers have evolved from peacekeepers to warriors.
The mentality of “us vs. them” has created police officers who believe the end justifies the means. Claims of excessive force continue to rise; racial profiling is a statistical reality and police officers kill on average 1,000 civilians per year.
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office ignited the nation, and world for that matter, in a movement to hold bad cops accountable. There are efforts underway in countless states to reform things like limited immunity, monetary bail and mandatory minimum sentences.
Qualified immunity provides the often ridiculous barriers that litigants must get through to bring a civil rights action against a police officer. Monetary bail is a growing problem. Many men and women sit in jail awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford bond. This scenario often puts defendants in the unenviable position of taking a plea or continuing to sit in jail. Finally, mandatory minimum sentences, relics from the “tough on crime” era, don’t reduce recidivism and precludes judges from imposing mitigating sentences based on individual facts and circumstances.
We all need to be vigilant in the fight to abandon the policies of a generation of “lock’em up” politicos whose agenda has had a horrific impact on juveniles - often, underprivileged juveniles of color.
The “lock’em up” crusade of the 1990s has been slowly unraveling. Dating back to 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, outlawing the death penalty for juveniles, the Supreme Court has offered up a series of decisions limiting juvenile culpability. In Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that life without parole can only be imposed for a juvenile convicted of murder.
In Miller v. Alabama, the high court ruled states cannot sentence a juvenile to mandatory life without parole. In Montgomery v. Alabama the court went further and found that a trial judge may not sentence a juvenile to life without parole without a find of “incorrigibility.”
However, this past month, for the first time in 16 years the newly realigned U.S Supreme Court took a step backward on juvenile culpability. The court essentially reversed its finding in Montgomery and ruled that a judge need not find incorrigibility for a life sentence, the court judge need only consider sentences other than life without parole.
My admonishment to you: pay close attention. The tide may be turning in the judiciaries’ view of reform. Emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation will be bad news for those caught up in the criminal justice system and those who have to flip the tab - taxpayers.
Thanks for reading.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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