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Justice, not convictions, must always be the goal

By Scott Tibbs, February 23, 2011

Two cases in the news illustrate how too many in our criminal justice system have forgotten about the importance of the second word - or worse, they are ignoring it for their own personal gain.

First, Radley Balko explores the case of two people convicted in a bizarre child abuse conspiracy, despite the lack of evidence against them. After a judge released the two from prison, a higher court ruled he exceeded his authority and they are waiting to see if they will be sent back.

The question, ultimately, should not be about whether the judge followed the law in releasing Nancy Smith and Joseph Allen. The question should be whether Smith and Allen are actually guilty of the crimes that have caused them to spend years in prison. It is obviously important that judges follow the law, but it is perverse to have that, rather than the question of whether crimes have actually been committed, as the focus of the hearings.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post investigates the use of DNA evidence and the attempts of convicted criminals to request DNA evidence in their cases. Craig Watkins, the district attorney for Dallas, asks a legitimate question: if there is a question about guilt and DNA could clear that up, what's the harm?

It is possible that some criminals are only trying to prolong the appeals process and lengthening the process and the DNA testing itself does cost money. That is a concern as so many states and localities struggle with budget shortfalls. But while rejecting frivolous appeals is reasonable, the primary purpose of the criminal justice system is justice, not cost containment and certainly not a positive win/loss record for prosecutors.

The problem in both cases is that the basic orientation of the criminal justice system has been corrupted. We hear political candidates (especially for prosecutor) brag about how any criminals they have put away when it comes time for an election, and politicians promise to keep us safe from crime. But who is going to protect the rights of the many, many innocent people who have been convicted on faulty evidence and spent years behind bars?

Let's also not forget that while most people in law enforcement are good people, corruption exists. Mike Nifong is one of the most infamous examples of a corrupt politician who tried to railroad innocent men for crimes they did not commit. If Nifong's victims did not have the financial resources to defend themselves - and a few vigilant journalists exposing his criminal conspiracy with Crystal Gail Mangum - he might have gotten away with his crimes.

More and more, the "war on crime" has become a war on civil liberties, and justice is being left behind. As the Tea Party movement has helped raise a healthy skepticism about government in the American people, now is the time to make serious reforms to the criminal justice system and re-emphasize limits on government.