Thursday, June 14, 2007

Peaking Behind the Media's "Paris Hilton "Curtain

I've refrained from talking about the Paris Hilton saga mainly because it distracts from discussions about the real problems that exist in our criminal justice system, i.e. that the poor often do not receive adequate representation with the result being disproportionate sentences and even innocent people being sent to jail regularly. The Innocence Project has been using DNA evidence to free hundreds of the wrongly convicted. Innocent people convicted on circumstantial or negligible evidence will serve their sentences as virtually all post-conviction resources are directed to death penalty cases.

I was wrong in ignoring this story because, with the public attention surrounding it, it provides a good vehicle for raising the issues I point out above.

Many of the problems with our criminal justice system are the result of public misperception. That's why I want to applaud the LA Times for its story pointing out what virtually every judge and lawyer in the country already knows --- Paris Hilton will serve more time than the average person would for the same offense. The article notes thata fter 4 days Hilton served more time than 60% of those who committed the same offense and that, after 23 days, she will have served more time than 80% of those who committed the same offense. I am willing to bet that the 20% who serve longer than 23 days have aggravating circumstances that are not present in Paris' case; that is unless you consider being a spoiled brat a punishable, aggravating circumstance. Further, the story notes: "[Hilton] is believed to be the first inmate in years who actually was sent back to jail to serve more of her term." In other words, Paris Hilton is being singled out because of the publicity of her case and is not, as the media created myth has it, being treated just like everyone else.

The injustice to Paris, who after all is undeniably guilty, is slight in my mind compared to the ten year sentence (with two already served) given to Genarlow Wilson for doing what probably half off all Americans have done or to the eleven innocent men who served years in prison as the result of an ultra-aggressive prosecutor from Dallas, Texas, before being cleared by DNA evidence (why isn't the right going after this prosecutor given the zeal they have for going after Mike Nifong for his decision to charge the Duke Lacrossers?)

However, it doesn't take much to know that this story has more angles than the spoiled rich kid who has to serve time for her crime. There is the posturing of Los Angeles Democratic District Attorney who is playing this for political publicity while masking the true problems LA has with prison overcrowding. There is the Judge who certainly knows he is abandoning the normal course because he is either too cowardly to admit publicly what normally occurs with such cases or is intentionally grandstanding to portray himself as a tough law and order judge, probably a bit of both. There are the sadists in the media who love getting pictures of of people dragged about in handcuffs and thrown into jail so that they can whip up ratings or newspaper sales.

California, and virtually every other state, have a problem. The public wants jail or prison sentences imposed on other people for virtually every crime, but doesn't want to pay for the jails or prisons necessary for all these folks. Someone should have the courage to raise these issues honestly with the public.


  • Right on, MacSwain. One of the few things you write that I agree with. Problem is, there is no political future for politicians who tell us what we don't want to hear.

    I think the main problem with US criminal justice is that it's too complicated, so most people (most criminals and also most of the general public) don't understand what is going on. The impression is that outcomes are based on manipulation rather than the facts. As a result, the system delivers decreased deterence and also decreased perceived retribution, even though it produces a lot of jail time.

    My solution would be to essentially eliminate plea bargaining, which would make the system a lot more transparent to its consumers. With the current system, prosecutors overcharge so that they have something to bargain away. When the bargain is made, a plea to a lesser charge, the victims and public feel like the criminal "got away with it" because they didn't plead to the original charge. Victims usually don't know the laws well enough to realize that it was an overcharge. The public usually doesn't even know the facts, just the allegations. The criminal, on the other hand, feels like his fate was decided in a back room deal, based on the clout of his lawyer rather than an objective judgment on the evidence as to his actual crime. Even if the actual time spent in jail is right for the crime, the perception of unfairness undermines much of its effectiveness.

    The cost of court operations (including public defenders) would go up a lot, but my sense is that without plea bargaining one could cut sentences across the board 50% or so, get better deterence, better perceived retribution and the savings from prison operations would exceed the increased court costs.

    I still can't figure out how to package this to make a political sale. If you can (or have a plausible solution of your own), run for the Legislature. I'll vote for you.

    I also agree that wrongful convictions are distressingly common. Don't know what to do about this, since a human system will always produce human error. Maybe if we made it *seem* fairer, juries would have less of a prosecution bias, and voters would be more inclined to remove overzealous prosecutors.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:32 PM  

  • Most prosecutor's would not agree that they routinely overcharge their cases. In Oregon, plea bargaining has already been abolished for DUII charges and it doesn't seem to have made a lot of difference.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:05 AM  

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