Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Former Attorney General Ed Meese warns: Overzealous laws fill prisons and jails

America is in the throes of "overcriminalization."

We are making and enforcing far too many criminal laws that create traps for the innocent but unwary -- and threaten to turn otherwise respectable, law-abiding citizens into criminals. Consider a few examples from the new book "One Nation Under Arrest":

· A 12-year old girl arrested and handcuffed for eating a single french fry on the Washington subway system.

· A cancer-ridden grandmother arrested and criminally charged for refusing to trim her hedges the way officials in Palo Alto, Calif., were trying to force her to.

A former high-school science whiz kid sent to prison after initially being arrested by FBI agents clad in SWAT gear for failing to affix a federally mandated sticker to his otherwise legal UPS package.

· A 67-year-old retired husband and grandfather imprisoned because some of the paperwork for his home-based orchid business did not satisfy an international treaty.

I could go on, but all these stories share one thing in common -- they are about typical Americans. Most involve a man or woman who works hard and pays taxes, cares for family members and is a good neighbor. Perhaps above all, this person strives to stay on the right side of the law.

This typical American holds deep and often intuitive beliefs in basic principles about American government, including a belief that, if you do what's right, you have nothing to fear from your own government, and certainly not from the criminal justice system.

But the typical American's deeply held beliefs about the freedoms he cherishes and the fundamental principles of his government are no longer as well-founded as they once were. Today, he is far more vulnerable than ever before to being caught up in a criminal investigation and prosecution -- and to actually being convicted and punished as a criminal -- for having done something he did not even suspect was illegal.

Criminal law has changed in the past 50 years. Once criminal law was about criminal acts that everyone knew were inherently unlawful (like murder, rape and robbery). Limiting criminal punishment to conduct that is inherently wrongful restricted governmental power in two important ways.

First, and most important, it kept the range of governmental power small. Having few criminal laws and a short list of things not to be done limited the scope within which government can exercise its authority.

Second, a limited criminal law served a teaching function. It reflected the beliefs and understandings common to the vast majority of our citizens -- the very citizens who were subject to the criminal law.

Today, the criminal law has grown as broad as the regulatory state in its sheer size and scope. In 1998, an American Bar Association task force estimated that there were more than 3,000 federal criminal offenses scattered throughout the 50 titles of the United States Code.

Just six years later, a leading expert on the overcriminalization problem, Professor John S. Baker Jr., published a study estimating that the number exceeded 4,000. As the ABA task force reported, the body of federal criminal law is "so large ...that there is no conveniently accessible, complete list of federal crimes."

If "ignorance of the law is no excuse," then every American citizen -- literally, every single one -- is ignorant and in peril, for nobody can know all the laws that govern their behavior.

A just criminal justice system, in the best sense of the word "just," has a twofold goal. One is to see that criminals are prosecuted, convicted and appropriately punished. The other is to ensure that those who are innocent are either not prosecuted in the first instance or, if mistakenly prosecuted, are not convicted. Today, our system fails the second of those goals.

Much is at stake for our freedoms and the freedoms of future generations. The problem of overcriminalization merits extensive study and debate by legal experts and policymakers, as well as average Americans, whose fundamental liberty is most at stake. Many constructive changes could make our justice system fairer and more just, and improve its ability to deter wrongdoing and punish real criminals. Taking the steps necessary to ensure that American criminal law once again routinely exemplifies the right principles and purposes will require much work, but the alternative is to distort the American criminal justice system, and jeopardize the American people.

April 26, 2010 12:05 AM
Meese, a former U.S. attorney general, is chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Criminal Justice Reform in South Carolina:

Gov. Mark Sanford formally threw his support behind a far-reaching sentencing reform bill Wednesday, a bill that supporters say will reduce the number of non-violent offenders in prison and save the state millions of dollars. "You can only squeeze so much blood from a turnip," Sanford said. "This really is a taxpayer issue."

The 94-page bill is expected to reduce the state's projected prison population enough to negate the need for a new prison -- saving more than $400 million over five years. It's designed to increase training for nonviolent offenders to re-enter society without becoming repeat offenders. And it defines a laundry list of crimes as "violent," including many sex crimes against children.

It also provides, for example, a tiered approach to assault and battery crimes. Currently, the state has 90-day maximum sentences and 10-year minimum sentences and nothing in between, said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston.

And it provides a sentence of up to $10,000 and up to 20 years in prison for habitual offenders convicted of driving under suspension resulting in death -- and a fine of up to $5,000 and 10 years in prison in such cases where great bodily injury results. A version of that provision, rolled into the bill last month, has been championed by Spartanburg resident Lily Lenderman for eight years -- ever since she lost her grandson in a wreck caused by someone driving under a suspended license.

"The whole idea about any criminal law is to keep us safe," said Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Woodruff, chairman of the House Criminal Law Subcommittee. "This bill ... is strong by keeping the violent offenders segregated from South Carolina families. At the same time, it's smart, because it's taking non-violent offenders out of the Department of Corrections and puts them on alternative sentencing -- GPS monitoring, for instance, that they pay for, not you or me."...

Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint said the Sanford administration had been behind sentencing reform since a scaled-down version of it failed seven years ago. Ozmint said South Carolina currently doesn't have a criminal justice system; rather, it has a patchwork of laws that have been cobbled together over the years. He and several supporters talked about this bill being ruled by statistics rather than emotions. "Don't underestimate that first step in this state's history," he said.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Program would stop wasting money, lives

Florida spends more than a billion dollars a year warehousing people with mental illness in prisons, locked forensic treatment facilities and local jails. They are among the most wasteful dollars the state spends. Mentally ill defendants are provided treatment until they are competent to stand trial, then they are typically released only to be arrested again. An effort to change this paradigm has been in the works for years. On Tuesday, a Senate committee is expected to consider a pilot program to bring this population into highly managed community care. This an opportunity to stop wasting moneys and lives.

By using state resources differently, Florida's mentally ill residents can be treated and avoid the revolving door of jail and the streets. Under a plan proposed by the Department of Children and Families, the mentally ill accused of relatively low-level crimes would be diverted into locked community-based residential treatment facilities. Once stabilized, these individuals would be provided a continuum of care and monitoring in community-living settings.

Many mentally ill residents could live law-abiding lives if they had access to regular treatment and services. The DCF program would use case managers and other professionals to track their progress and help them obtain federal benefits to reach some level of self-sufficiency.

But DCF cannot launch its diversion experiment without changes to state law. The department needs the flexibility to shift up to 5 percent of funding from forensic treatment beds. It also needs permission to seek federal Medicaid dollars for indigent mentally ill criminal defendants in the program.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday will consider a bill, SB 2612, that would create a forensic mental health probation and parole program in the Department of Corrections and authorize mental health courts throughout the state. Its sponsor, Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, should allow the changes that DCF seeks to be amended into her bill. That would get the pilot program moving this session.

A nudge from Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach, who wants to be the state's next chief financial officer, also would help. Allowing this creative experiment would fit in nicely with a candidate for an office that looks out for Florida's long-term fiscal interests.

The mentally ill people who qualify for the diversion program would otherwise land in a state forensic hospital at a cost of more than $60,000. Then they would take a plea agreement — as roughly 80 percent do — and be released without any treatment or services. The sensible choice for Florida is to give the pilot program a try.

A St. Petersburg Times editorial
Published Friday, April 9, 2010

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Planted Evidence Results in Conviction

Unfortunately, some law enforcement officers are not satisified with collecting actual evidence in criminal investigations. Recently there has been documentation that evidence planting is a legitimate problem, as is shown in the article found at: