Entering the Calculation

Slate has run an interview with law professor John Pfaff, who suggests that, contrary to popular belief, America’s mass incarceration problem is not a result of the war on drugs or longer prison sentences. Instead, he posits that it’s the result of prosecutors charging more felonies than they used to. [According to Pfaff, between the years 1994 to 2008, the probability that a district attorney would file a felony charge increased from 1 in 3, to 2 in 3.] Pfaff doesn’t know the reason for the increase, nor does he know how to combat it. This brings up some interesting questions.

First, why are prosecutors charging more cases these days? Well, why not? With a national plea rate in excess of 90%, it’s painless. It makes good political sense to indict 2 in 3 cases if you know that they’re both likely to plead. That way you can be “tough on crime” and lazy at the same time.

Second, how do we discourage prosecutors from bringing too many charges?  It seems to me that taking more cases to trial would help. If prosecutors expect the cases that they indict to be tried instead of pled, they’re much less likely to pursue weak cases or cases with unserious charges. This will have the laudatory effect of both minimizing the risk of innocent people going to prison, as well as making sure that our prisons only hold people who really need to be there.

Of course, legislatures can help with this by jettisoning the draconian drug sentences that exist in this country, and replacing them with sentences that are reasonable. After all, it’s longer sentences that compel defendants, even in cases where the evidence against them is weak, to plead guilty. If, however, the sentences were such that going to trial were more frequently worth the risk, more trials would happen, forcing prosecutors to prioritize. That would get the charging rate back down to 1 in 3 pretty quickly, I bet. And maybe it won’t even be that much longer before the United States no longer has the largest prison population in the world.

Related:

The Prison Problem (David Brooks, 29 Sept. 2015)

An Antidote To Unjust Laws

Jury nullification occurs when a jury decides to ignore the law. Why would anyone ever want a jury to do that? Well, there are a lot of unjust laws out there. What is an unjust law? According to Martin Luther King Jr. [pdf], “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

Even though Justice Scalia probably sighs loudly whenever someone utters the phrase “natural law,” I’m going to talk about it anyway. The fact is that some pretty bright and historically significant people have relied upon natural law. Martin Luther King was one of them. Thomas Jefferson was another.

What I would expect any judge to be even more uncomfortable with than allowing natural law arguments in courtrooms, is continuing the practice of not allowing them, as that seems to infringe upon one of the central principles of a defendant’s right to due process: the right to be heard.

The most sacred of interests, a person’s liberty and reputation, are at stake in criminal trials. As such, we must be certain that all possible arguments in favor of the preservation of each are allowed. If we do not empower jurors to at least consider the merits of a law which, at least in theory, they have already approved, then we engage in an exercise that is little more than a show trial. This may go a long way toward satisfying our desire for expeditious process, but it must go a very little way toward satisfying our demand for justice. It is not enough to merely apply the law. We must also inquire into the law’s morality. Dred Scott, let us never forget, was once the law.

When we consider that the United States “has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, [yet] has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners,” how can we deny that many of our criminal laws remain deserving of whatever scrutiny is available? Such a prison population represents a failure of democratic government and the jury trial, which is perhaps one of the purest forms of democracy devised, is a way to fix it. By preventing arguments on nullification, however, the courts do not allow for meaningful trials. Instead, they are content to send millions to prison who may be factually guilty, but morally innocent. That is shameful.

[For a more scholarly and academically supported argument on this issue, please see this pdf.]

 

Related

Jury Convicts Ex-Pastor Who Shared Jury Nullification Fliers

Don’t Bind Me to “Whizzer” White

Judges should abandon the doctrine of stare decisis and welcome the citation of non-legal texts in attorney briefs. The power of an argument derives from the quality of its reasoning and, to a degree, its poetics. There should be no power in its “position,” such as the fact that it originated in a court. The benefit of being on a court should consist solely in the fact that judges enjoy prominence in our society and, as such, their words garner more attention than those of other citizens. Judges’ words should be given no additional power simply because of the judge’s title.

The Ancient Greeks understood this. Cleon was more prominent than Diodotus, but his argument, being barbarous, failed. On the other hand, Pericles was adored, not because he was an important figure in society, but because he was a clear and eloquent thinker.

I recognize that becoming a judge is difficult. It suggests a level of persistence, intelligence, integrity, and wisdom that is uncommon in most people. It suggests this; it doesn’t guarantee it. William Rehnquist was Chief Justice of the United States. He was also a drug-addicted hypocrite whose judicial philosophy was to decide cases according to his personal prejudices. His First Amendment jurisprudence made that plain. I say good riddance to William Rehnquist. Stare decisis, however, says Rehnquist lives.

Of course, if a judge’s opinions are worthy of guiding us beyond their authors’ corporal lives, that’s fine. There have been great minds in the American judiciary (Brandeis and Holmes come immediately to mind) whose opinions are deserving of special and continued consideration. But such minds are rare. We should not pretend that every judge is of such caliber. Yet that is how stare decisis works; James Madison’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s comments are merely “persuasive,” while Warren Burger’s and Sandra Day O’Connor’s are “binding.” This is ludicrous. [Ironically, Justice Thomas might agree with me.] Instead of following people just because they happen to be a judge, let’s treat nothing as binding and everything as persuasive. The question then becomes what is most persuasive.

But what about predictability? Won’t unmooring the courts from precedent result in chaos? No. Abandoning stare decisis will not untether courts from the pursuit of reason and truth. These things are timeless. They will forever form the basis for all quality opinions, legal or not. By abandoning stare decisis judicial legitimacy and consistency will come not from adhering to a rule simply because, good or not, some prior court said it was the rule. Rather, it will derive from the repeated application of the best rules simply because they have proven to be the best rules.

This is, in fact, what happens anyway. Courts part with precedent when it’s obvious that they must (Dred Scott no longer controls, thank god), but this process takes too long. It results in bad opinions having an unacceptable level of control over our society. It also discourages diligent attorneys from mining mankind’s vast, non-caselaw-related, intellectual riches for gems.

So, let’s abandon stare decisis. Let our jurisprudence be guided by bright lights of thought wherever they may be found. Let the grip of mediocre opinions written by lesser jurists retire when their authors do.

A Nuclear Family

I’m glad that Iran has agreed to return to nuclear talks, but it’s not going to work. We will never be able to successfully negotiate with Iran, or any other aspiring nuclear power because, on the issue of nuclear weapons, we are hypocrites. Non-nuclear countries will always think: you have nuclear weapons, why shouldn’t we? They are right. To take the position that the United States is somehow more deserving of a nuclear arsenal than another nation is to claim a superiority that is as condescending as it is false. The fact is: nuclear weapons are too dangerous for any nation to have; no nation is deserving of the “privilege” to destroy the world. If we truly want to avoid a nuclear holocaust, we must lead by example and destroy our own nuclear weapons. All of them.

Henry Moore's "Nuclear Energy" via Mary Warren
Henry Moore’s “Nuclear Energy” via Mary Warren.

What I propose is that every existing nuclear power invest in one nuclear weapons repository in a neutral location (perhaps Antarctica?) where all of the planet’s nuclear weapons will be housed. By “all of the planet’s nuclear weapons” I do not mean every weapon currently in existence; there are far too many weapons already, and 98% of them should be destroyed. Rather, I mean that there would be no weapons on earth, other than what would be contained in this repository.

The member states that would oversee this repository would include any nation that currently has nuclear weapons capability. The rules for firing a weapon from this repository would be these: 1) no weapon can be fired without majority agreement by the member states and, 2) under no circumstances can a weapon be fired at any terrestrial address. The sole purpose of this repository would be to address common, extraterrestrial threats, such as the impending impact of an asteroid. No weapon in this facility would ever be allowed to be used against humanity.

Concomitant with the agreement of all existing nuclear nations to invest in this shared repository, there must also be an agreement to prevent any additional nations from developing nuclear weapons. If any nation, including any member nation, is found to be developing a nuclear weapon of its own, the other nations must agree to act, militarily if necessary, against that nation.

An uneasy peace purchased at the threat of mutual annihilation is no legacy to pass on to our children. Like the boy in Akira Kurosawa’s short film from Dreams called Sunshine Through the Rain, we have learned too late that the very pursuit of this knowledge has possibly doomed us, but the line has been crossed and now “[w]e must somehow find a silken cord to control this beast” [pdf].

If all other nations agree to the complete destruction of their personal stockpile of nuclear weapons, so should the United States. By this agreement, the nuclear burden will finally rest where it belongs: as the shared responsibility of all humankind.

Related:

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party Leader, Says He’d Never Use Nuclear Weapons (New York Times, Sept. 30, 2015)

Donald Trump, Perhaps Unwittingly, Exposes Paradox of Nuclear Arms (New York Times, Aug. 3, 2016)

Last Statements

It’s not the end, it’s only the beginning. And Dad, I’m coming home.

I don’t want nobody to be bitterTe quiero mucho.

Just so you know, I am an innocent man. But, I hold no grudges. In fact, I would like to tell Mr. Richard I appreciate all he has done for me. I love you sis.

I’m sorry for the victim’s family. I wish I could make it up to them. The truth is, I did not know the man but for a few seconds before I shot him. He deserved better.

This stuff stings, man almighty. Then again, I can feel it, taste it, not bad.

Texas Rangers, Texas RangersI am a miracle. One more thing, Viva Mexico.

Everyone changes, right? No cases are error free.

I am disappointed by the courts. But that’s O.K. I just played the hand that life dealt me.

You should continue with criminal law. It’s your decision; they need lawyers out there that will fight. Also, thank you for your hospitality.

I have no hate toward humanity. I deserve what I am getting.

Where’s my stunt double? I am not as strong as I thought I was going to be. Bye bye peanutTo the moon and back.

Today is a good day to die. There’s really nothing more to say.

No.

[Inspired by this project.]