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Justice, not convictions, must always be the goal

By Scott Tibbs, November 8, 2007

Radley Balko has an excellent column dealing with sensible and necessary reforms to the criminal justice system proposed in California but vetoed by Governor Ahnuld Schwarzenegger. I won't comment on the specific proposals because Balko's column is already flawless. I will make some generic comments though.

As crime became a problem and people felt that there was too much focus on the rights of criminals and not enough focus on the rights of victims, there was a backlash. More states instituted reforms to make it easier to convict criminals, and the voters approved. Before politicians started avoiding the accusation of being "soft on terror", one of the things that a politician was most afraid of hearing is that he is "soft on crime". All of this is understandable. We all want to see justice done and criminals punished for their behavior.

The problem, as Balko points out, is that it went too far in the other direction. Somewhere along the way, we lost our focus on justice and became more interested in convictions. The "tough on crime" political atmosphere probably played a role in the criminal behavior of disgraced ex-prosecutor, criminal and rapist Mike Nifong. But even honest prosecutors and police can become overzealous and trample the rights of people who are accused but not guilty of a crime.

We see this in prosecutor's races, as incumbents talk about the number of convictions they have been able to score while challengers attack incumbents for not getting enough convictions. Earlier this year, newly elected prosecutor Chris Gaal was accused of "letting (accused criminal Terry) Nelson go free", as if Gaal's office encouraged the jury to acquit him of the crime he was charged with. But what is the purpose of the criminal justice system? What is the primary responsibility of prosecutors and judges? The answer is not convictions; it is justice. When someone guilty of a crime goes free, an injustice has taken place. But when someone innocent of a crime goes to prison, that is also a grave injustice.

Frankly, I think we have much more to fear from a government that oversteps the boundaries set by our Constitution than from criminals who prey on innocent people or each other. The damage done by criminals is microscopic compared to the damage a totalitarian police state can do to our lives, property, liberty and prosperity. The use of paramilitary tactics by police SWAT teams (something Balko has also been vigilant in exposing) is also a grave concern for those who want to see America preserved as a land of liberty.

It is possible to be tough on crime, to respect the rights of the accused, and to seek justice in criminal cases. None of these are exclusive to the others. The question is whether politicians are willing to stand up for what is right rather than what is politically expedient. There are sensible civil libertarians who are Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals and moderates. If we're going to move back to a more sensible policy, we need all of those people working together to advance the cause of justice.