Originally published at the Freedom Democrats site
America prides itself on being a land of laws. We can rest easy, knowing that if we have broken no law, the police will not bother us.
The Bush administration has recently shaken our confidence in this fact: they assert a right to spy on and even imprison American citizens on American soil, without any reference to those individuals having violated a law. This is a troubling development, but for some segments of American society, the rule of law has always stood on a shaky foundation.
Americans are regularly arrested despite having committed no crime, and most are found "not guilty" after standing trial before their peers, yet some are wrongfully convicted. The American legal system is designed to err on the side of liberty--guilt must be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt"-- so we might be tempted to accept that any wrongful punishments are the unavoidable side-effect of a human system that punishes the guilty.
We shouldn't dismiss this so easily. Wrongful conviction and punishment is the greatest infringement on personal liberty possible by the government in our society, and eliminating wrongful punishments should be a top priority for anyone concerned with liberty or fairness in our society.
I generally don't feel qualified to judge the legitimacy of individual convictions, but I can judge the system as a whole, and I know that the United States of America are punishing, even executing, individuals who did not commit the crimes that they were convicted of. Even worse, I know that Americans from particular communities are much more likely to be wrongfully convicted than other Americans, and I know that these wrongful convictions and punishments are not necessary.
We should take all reasonable measures to minimize wrongful punishments, but we don't. To minimize wrongful punishments, we should severely limit the use of the death penalty, and provide any funds necessary to provide legal consul to indigent Americans who have been arrested.
For information about wrongful execution, see Science versus the Death Penalty at Scientific American Observations. And for a lyrical representation of a wrongful execution, see Johnny Cash's song, The Long Black Veil.
The issue of public provision of legal consul for indigent defendants is a bit more complicated than the death penalty. Often, the state claims that it just doesn't have the money to provide adequate defense. As critics of government profligacy, readers of this blog may be sympathetic with the view that criminal defendants should be left to find their own lawyers. However, we must remember that the loss of freedom that comes from our current tax rate is completely insignificant in comparison to the loss of freedom that comes from wrongful imprisonment, and the cost of a fully funded public defender's office is insignificant in comparison to other expenditures of state governments. Also, we should recognize that the defendants legal costs are generally imposed by a state that constantly criminalizes additional activities, and these costs should be treated as an unavoidable part of the criminalization of any activity.
For information about providing an adequate defense for indigent criminal defendants, see the American Bar Association's Ten Principles of a Public Defense System (PDF) and the ACLU's website on justice for the indigent.
To get an idea of how this issue is treated in public discourse, check out this editorial from the Virginia-Pilot, Indigent defense loses out again, and how Virginia measures up using the American Bar Association's evaluation system, rated by the Virginia Indigent Defense Coalition.
Finally, for some perspective, consider the view of a poor person living in a poor community. In addition to the risk of being the victim of street-crime, this person may also worry about police harassment and the risk of being convicted of a crime that he did not commit. If he views the police as a threat to himself and his loved ones, he will likely be filled with fear and anger, and will undermine fundamental societal institutions. The risk of wrongful imprisonment may be viewed as part of an oppressive regime, with consequences described in the essay Oppressed People Suck
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