Media coverage of Florida’s self-defense laws in recent weeks has often been very inaccurate. While some persons, particularly from the gun prohibition lobbies, have claimed that the Martin/Zimmerman case shows the danger of Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, that law is legally irrelevant to case. So let’s take a look at what the Florida laws actually say. Continue reading ‘Florida’s Self-Defense Laws’ »
Archive for the ‘Crime Victims Rights’ Category
In the past week’s posts about my new book, I’ve sketched out some of the hidden costs of professionalizing our system and suggested ways in which we might deliberately slow down our speedy, impersonal assembly-line justice. This set of posts has focused on one aspect: giving victims larger roles. (The book offers an even more radical proposal for turning sentencing back into a victim- and defendant-centered morality play, which I call restorative sentencing juries, but I can’t go into that here.)
Naturally, including victims gives rise to various fears. Today I’ll discuss three such fears: vengefulness, inequality, and unprofessionalism. Each set of concerns is legitimate, but manageable if not overblown.
First, we tend to assume that victims thirst for revenge. Give victims power, one might think, and they will simply take it out of defendants’ hides. To this way of thinking, criminal justice is a zero-sum game, and making victims happier necessarily comes at the expense of defendants, tilting the playing field against them.
But contrary to what one might expect, victims are not reflexively punitive. Empirical studies find that participation by victims does not lead to harsher sentences. Thus, giving victims voices in the process need not produce harsher outcomes, particularly because plenty of safeguards would remain. A neutral judge or jury would have to authorize any conviction or punishment and would weigh the victim’s input against the defendant’s and all the other evidence. A prosecutor would still be able to override a victim’s vengeful, selfish, or otherwise unbalanced requests.
What victims care about is not so much the substantive outcome as whether they are treated fairly and respectfully along the way, including whether they are listened to and taken seriously. Keeping victims informed, letting them speak, and giving them their day in court makes them more satisfied. That is not a zero-sum game; both victims and defendants can benefit from being treated respectfully.
Of course, some victims will desire more punishment than defendants want; that is why judges and juries must sit in judgment. But a process that listens to and respects both sides will earn more legitimacy in everyone’s eyes, regardless of the substantive outcome. And procedures that encourage catharsis, apology, and forgiveness may help victims to release their anger and find closure without demanding the maximum sentences.
Second, heeding victims would seem to invite inequality. Some victims suffer more or are more vengeful than others, and some are more attractive or more articulate.
Though many philosophers deride it as moral luck, harm to victims is undeniably central to popular intuitions of justice. For instance, whether a victim nimbly dodges a knife thrust can make all the difference between a conviction for murder, mayhem, or just aggravated assault. Each defendant may have the same mental culpability but receive vastly different sentences based on the victim he chose to victimize.
Gauging the harm to a unique human being, not a faceless abstraction, requires evidence of how that particular victim suffered. A victim’s expressed feelings and wishes are powerful evidence of the psychological harm that he has suffered or from which he has recovered. And many people’s intuitions put significant weight on victims’ wishes; they implicitly recognize that victims own a share of the right to punish.
One may legitimately worry that judges and juries may favor attractive, white, young, female victims. But sentencing guidelines, rules of evidence, and cautionary jury instructions can limit discrimination. Moreover, despite decades of regulations, scholars still find sentence disparities based on the race, sex, and class of victims. Rich, powerful victims already find ways to influence prosecutors and make their voices heard; poorer victims need formal ways to participate to achieve an equal footing.
Finally, efforts to treat like cases alike, such as mandating charging and minimum sentences, often wind up treating unlike cases alike. That is the lesson of my analysis of prosecutorial power: rules meant to ensure substantive equality often become plea-bargaining chips that turn on insiders’ interests rather than blameworthiness or harm. Perhaps, then, it is worth relaxing our fruitless quest for perfect equality in favor of the other values of victim participation.
Indeed, perhaps local participation by victims and the public may be even better at promoting equality than top-down judicial rules have been. Local democracy might perhaps defuse the insider-outsider tension, instead of driving outsiders to jack up sentences while insiders covertly and inconsistently undercut them. Over the last decade, in areas such as racial profiling, capital punishment, and crack cocaine sentencing, legislatures and governors have pushed for more criminal justice equality where judges have failed. Voters care about equality. Populism, in short, need not mean racism.
Third, transferring power from prosecutors to victims would seem to slight the benefits of professional expertise. But critics of victims’ rights overlook prosecutors’ flaws. Prosecutors are far from perfect guardians of the public’s and defendants’ interests. They have plenty of self-interests of their own, which can make them too harsh in some cases and too lenient in others. The alternative to a victim’s check on prosecutors is effectively no check at all. Prosecutors can check victims’ excesses, but likewise we need victims to check prosecutors’ excesses.
At one extreme, lawyers can become cynical. Some of the commentators on these posts, like some of the lawyers whom I interviewed for the book, doubt that there is such a thing as justice or that criminal justice could have anything to do with justice. Others burn out, drained and beaten down by the volume of work.
Many others become jaded, dulled by time and the steady drumbeat of crime. They may have been drawn to the profession to do justice and serve the public, but over time the focus on case-processing statistics and the legal mindset dulls the freshness of their perspectives. They need to be reminded of how their constituents, the outsiders, view justice and how they need to be treated.
I’m a former federal prosecutor: I wanted to do justice, and I was proud to engage in public service. The bulk of the lawyers I practiced with, against, and in front of were good, honorable people. But a little bit of distance from practicing law has helped me to see what I and many other practicing lawyers gradually paid less attention to–the central role of moral justice and flesh-and-blood people. Insiders may come to see defendants and victims as statistics, but outsiders taking a fresh look see complex, flawed, real people.
G.K. Chesterton put it best: “[T]he horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, . . . is not that they are wicked . . . , not that they are stupid . . . , it is simply that they have got used to it. Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of justice; they only see our own workshop.” Juries existed to bring in a steady rotation of outsiders, whose fresh eyes could see the wounded victim and “the prisoner in the dock” in all their complexity before “the awful court of judgment.”
Ours is an age that worships professionalism and bureaucracy; we are disciples of Max Weber. Professionalism has its virtues, but we are sometimes blind to its vices and shortcomings. In the book, I reach back to an earlier American tradition, that of Alexis de Tocqueville and populist self-government.
Criminal justice should fundamentally be about justice, and justice is fundamentally about morality. Idealism should guide us even as practicality brings it down to earth. Only by forcing insiders and outsiders, lawyers and laymen to see through one another’s eyes and take one another seriously can we reap the benefits of both expertise and fresh perspectives.
It’s been a pleasure blogging here this week. Thank you for your attention.
In this week’s guest-blog posts on my new book, I’ve explored just a few of the ways in which our criminal justice machine has drifted far from its moral roots. Today I want to summarize the range of problems and offer just a couple of possible solutions, though the book goes into many more.
Lawyers’ bottom-line, cost-benefit approach has brought many undoubted benefits, including efficient case processing and thus crime control. Those goods do indeed matter greatly to ordinary citizens. But criminal justice ought to serve more than this single goal to which it has been boiled down.
The machinery’s relentless pursuit of mechanistic efficiency has slighted the downsides: It disempowers victims, defendants, and the public. It cheapens justice into a marketable commodity, a fungible widget to be mass-produced. It eschews the rhetoric of moral judgment in favor of legalese and mathematical gobbledygook.
It also hides the workings of the system, leaving outsiders frustrated and mistrustful and insiders free to indulge their self-interests or idiosyncratic preferences. It exacerbates the cycle of pathological politics of crime legislation, helping to provoke draconian referenda in response and later dishonest subversion of those populist measures.
In addition, the machine neglects remorse, apology, forgiveness, healing of relationships, reintegration, and reentry. It creates a semi-permanent underclass of prisoners and ex-cons in exile. It hollows out large swaths of minority neighborhoods. And it deprives countless children of their fathers and women of their husbands and boyfriends, with little hope that these men will return to lives of lawful work and responsible fatherhood.
Whew! That’s a daunting list of problems. It is immensely difficult to reform a system as broken as our punishment factory. Skeptics can dismiss incremental reforms as cosmetic, like straightening deck chairs on the Titanic. More ambitious reforms get attacked from the other side as unrealistic given massive caseloads.
Still other critics assume, wrongly, that if the public supported any workable reforms, politicians would already have implemented them. But we must start where we can and not let pessimism paralyze us.
In the book, I suggest a range of possible solutions, including making prisoners work (even perhaps in the military) to repay their victims, families, and society and making it easier for them to find housing and jobs upon release. I propose abolishing the most dishonest forms of plea bargaining, particularly pleas in which defendants proclaim innocence or stay silent and those in which prosecutors downgrade the true charges. In today’s post, I’d like to focus on micro-level solutions to include victims more fully in individual cases.
The first step is to give victims better information about their cases. While most states have some victims’ rights law on the books, enforcement is uneven and many victims don’t receive notice. Dedicated officials, such as victim/witness coordinators, help to increase contact with victims and keep tabs on the progress of cases. Automatic email and telephone notices could keep them informed about upcoming court hearings.
Victims could also be allowed to speak at sentencing, instead of submitting perfunctory letters. They could also speak with, question, and respond to defendants and lawyers at trials and at plea and sentencing hearings.
The hardest questions involve what kind of voice victims should have over the course of the prosecution. The trick is to strike a middle path between letting victims hold the system hostage or making their participation hollow. The community’s shared sense of justice should control, but victims provide important information about the harms they have suffered. The public wants to hear what victims have to say and what they need in order to heal, but it should check that reaction with its own sense of justice.
First, prosecutors should provide timely notice of upcoming decisions, such as charges and plea offers. Second, they must affirmatively solicit victims’ views, in plenty of time to influence decisions. Third, prosecutors should have to articulate reasons for their decisions, much as judges do. For major decisions, they should do so in writing; for minor or routine ones, a checklist or oral statement could suffice.
Fifth, victims ought to have the time and opportunity to appeal major felony decisions to a prosecutor’s supervisor, even by email, phone, or a ten-minute conversation. If line prosecutors knew that victims could appeal to their supervisors, line prosecutors would listen more respectfully and be careful to justify any contrary decisions.
Finally, victims (as well as judges, fellow prosecutors and police, probation officers, and even defense lawyers and defendants) should have avenues to leave feedback on police and prosecutors’ performance. Even an eBay-style feedback loop would illuminate and check professionals’ decisions, and it could influence pay and promotions. Soliciting victims’ feedback would empower them and send the message that the system cares about their views. Corporations routinely survey customers and solicit feedback so they can continually improve their customer service; government agencies have been slow to do the same.
Of course, victim involvement works only where one can identify a victim. More than a third of arrests are for drug crimes, and one-ninth are for public-order offenses, such as weapons and driving-related offenses. But not all drug and public-order offenses are truly victimless: think of crack houses that blight neighborhoods or armed criminals who terrorize communities.
Where even indirect victims are absent, that very absence should weigh against aggressive enforcement. That would reshape drug enforcement away from racking up easy buys and busts toward the subset of crimes that indirectly harm neighborhoods. More of a focus on victim input would mean more focused enforcement of so-called victimless crimes and more emphasis on classic violent and property crimes.
So, that’s just a sampling of the book’s diagnosis and remedies for what ails American criminal justice. In my final post late today or tomorrow, I’ll respond to some objections, most notably fears of inequality, vengeful victims, and unprofessionalism. Each concern, I’ll suggest, is legitimate but manageable.
In yesterday’s guest-blog post on my new book, I explored the gulf between criminal-justice insiders and outsiders, the lawyers and laymen who see criminal justice very differently. The book explores in detail some of the human needs that criminal justice professionals overlook, such as the thirst for remorse, apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Today I’ll suggest that the root problem is the state’s monopoly on criminal justice, and solutions have to involve giving greater roles to victims.
Today, the right to punish belongs exclusively to the state, not the victim. Crimes violate the state’s laws and its interest in maintaining public order and social cohesion. The state does not settle for restitution and fines, as private litigants do, but imprisons and even executes wrongdoers. It exacts its justice quickly and impersonally to lock up the dangerous criminal and to deter him and others. All that seems to matter is the bottom-line number of years in prison and, to an extent, accuracy in discerning guilt.
The state-centered model assumes that cold reason should dominate criminal-justice decisions and exclude human emotions. But the cool logic of state-monopolized justice, to the exclusion of victims, conflicts with many people’s moral intuitions.
Why should the right to punish belong exclusively to the state? Disputes aren’t simply impersonal red flags that alert the government to dangerous threats. They wrong both the state and the victims. Crime has a human face, and that face deserves standing and a say in the matter. The victim or his representative seems naturally to deserve at least a partial right to pay back the wrongdoer.
That is a big part of why victims’ rights laws have proven so popular (though, as the book explains, they haven’t lived up to their promise and have often been hijacked by tough-on-crime groups such as prison guards). Plus, an important function of punishment is to defeat crimes by vindicating and re-empowering victims.
Empirical evidence confirms the intuition that victims’ views matter. When surveyed about concrete punishment scenarios, many people give great weight to the victim’s attitude and wishes, particularly for crimes involving property or personal injury. A democracy ought to do more to incorporate this widespread intuition about justice.
Professionals look at conflicts as costly disputes to be negotiated away. But in a sense, conflicts are important opportunities for the victim, defendant, and community to express themselves, listen, and learn. The parties have suffered personally and belong at the center of the dispute. Thus, criminal law used to resemble private law, in which tort victims may prosecute, settle, or waive their shares of claims. But professionalization has stolen conflicts from the parties, not only disempowering them but also muting the lessons taught by public criminal verdicts.
The law could surrender its monopoly on criminal justice by once again making more room for the parties’ interests and voices. That doesn’t mean transferring the monopoly to victims; prosecutors need to keep a leading role to ensure accuracy, equality, and fairness. But victims and defendants deserve greater speaking roles, both in court and in mediation. Judges and juries must filter the partisans’ voices, empathizing yet reflecting and keeping critical distance, to keep retribution from collapsing into vengeance.
The exclusion of any victim’s right is especially puzzling when the victim wishes to forgive and show mercy. The state may cap punishments to check bloodthirsty vengeance, but it has much less reason to symmetrically limit mercy. As long as the punishment suffices to deter, incapacitate, and condemn the seriousness of the crime, the state’s interests are satisfied. Any margin of retribution above that should be the victim’s to forgive.
We need to take seriously the metaphor of a debt wrongdoers owe both to society and to victims. As the victim suffered the direct loss and holds a share of the wrongdoer’s debt, he may either insist on payment or forgive his share.
The moral of the story is that, even if the state runs the process, human emotion deserves a seat at the table. Emotion isn’t just a raw, blind, unreasonable passion. It is in part cognitive and evaluative, and it can be taught.
Emotions are an important part of what makes us human and how we understand and evaluate our fellow humans’ actions. Crime excites fear and anger, empathy and indignation, sorrow and forgiveneness. Victims need our solidarity; wrongdoers merit our anger but also empathy for their plight and reasons for breaking the law. But neutral arbiters must reflect and balance competing emotional claims to distill justice. Laymen care whether criminal justice is emotionally sensitive or tone-deaf, and taking these concerns into account should bolster the law’s legitimacy.
But, as the book discusses in detail, too often lawyers hijack emotional discourse to serve particular political ends. In that vein, I canvas three recent political movements (victims’ rights, restorative justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence) that react against the impersonality of the criminal justice machine. Each movement is unbalanced, but each has something to teach narrow, cold, state-centered criminal justice.
In my final installment tomorrow, I’ll offer a few suggestions for how criminal justice could do much more to include victims alongside prosecutors, to blend the perspectives of both insiders and outsiders, lawyers and laymen.
In yesterday’s guest-blog post on my new book, I discussed some of the ways in which criminal justice developed from a common-sense morality play into a professionalized machine during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Now I want to describe what the gulf between criminal justice insiders and outsiders looks like today; offer a few examples of the tug of war that erupts between the two sides; and explain some of the hidden costs of this gulf.
By insiders, I mean the lawyers and other professionals who run the machinery of criminal justice: the prosecutors, police, probation officers, judges, and even defense counsel. They are knowledgeable about investigations, crimes, and punishments. Back when jury trials were common, insiders were primarily adversaries, but now both sides’ lawyers collaborate in plea bargaining; cynics might even call it collusion.
Though prosecutors and police are nominally agents of the outsiders whom they supposedly represent — victims and the public — outsiders lack the knowledge and leverage to effectively oversee how insiders do their jobs. Insiders tend to mellow over time, and their practical concerns about huge dockets and fear of losing trials (risk aversion) make them especially pliable in plea bargaining. Finally, as lawyers, insiders are taught to weigh costs against benefits, focusing on neutral, amoral criteria such as speed and cost.
Outsiders see the system quite differently. They see little of police enforcement decisions, plea-bargaining conversations in courtroom hallways, or secret grand jury proceedings, and receive little notice or information even about proceedings that are public. Sensational media accounts and crime dramas lead the public to imagine that sentences are lighter than they actually are. In addition, victims and members of the public have few opportunities to participate and have their day in court, or even to see what’s going on. Finally, outsiders do not mellow or become jaded, and they view crime in moral terms, not economic ones.
The gulf between insiders and outsiders breeds a tug of war between the two sides. In America, the law on the books is often tenuously related to the law in action, because police and prosecutors have pervasive discretion in deciding which laws to enforce in which cases and how vigorously. In other words, criminal laws create not binding obligations, but a menu of options for insiders to exercise or not.
So, for instance, police choose not to make troublesome arrests, or prosecutors bargain down charges or sentences, to get rid of troublesome cases. For a long time, they viewed drunk driving, domestic abuse, and date-rape cases as not very serious and (in the latter two cases) hard to prove, so police would avoid making arrests and prosecutors would bargain the cases away to get rid of them. (Those are about the only crimes I can think of where popular outrage has been loud and sustained enough to bring about an enduring shift in arrest and prosecution practices.)
When the public sporadically gets angry about a criminal justice problem, perhaps because of media hype, it may clamor for new crimes or mandatory-minimum sentences. What the public doesn’t see, however, is that insiders’ procedural discretion usually undercuts these reforms, turning even so-called mandatory sentences into chips to be bargained away. If the public gets angry about plea bargaining, it may even try to limit prosecutors’ ability to plea bargain through ballot initiatives and referenda. But even then, prosecutors find ways around such laws.
Now, some readers probably aren’t too troubled by this. If you think lawyers know best and voters are benighted, you might be tempted to applaud how lawyers subvert democratic accountability and responsiveness in order to process cases efficiently.
But the costs are considerable. The tug of war wastes prison resources, unduly lengthening some sentences and shortening others based on defendants’ plea-bargaining behavior rather than what they deserve. It leaves insiders vast discretion to apply new laws selectively, opening the door to discrimination or arbitrariness. It leaves outsiders disempowered, and it thwarts democracy. In particular, it undermines trust in and the legitimacy of the criminal law, and it prevents the public from monitoring its agents and ensuring that they are following the will of the people.
Back when jury trials were common, citizens could oversee prosecutors and intervene carefully at the retail level as jurors. And when counties were smaller and criminal justice was more local, they had a better sense of local crime problems and priorities and so were better able to keep the police in check, neither too tough nor too aloof.
But now that jurisdictions are much larger and most citizens learn about criminal justice from television, outsiders can intervene only crudely. At best, they can paint with a very broad brush by voting and influencing legislatures. At worst, they must pass laws that read like bumper-sticker slogans, such as three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences, because they have lost faith in insiders and lack subtler tools to limit leniency and ensure equality. What should have been a cooperative relationship has degenerated into a competitive one, as outsiders wield these sledgehammers and insiders feel they have to evade their crude blows.
At root, these difficulties stem from what economists call the principal-agent problem. Prosecutors and police are supposed to serve victims and the public interest, but those voices are so diffuse and powerless that there is really no identifiable client to constrain how the agents do their jobs. (The book offers a similar critique of the relationship between defendants and their lawyers.) In tomorrow’s blog post, I’ll propose a fairly radical shift in how to think about the stakes in criminal justice: loosening the state’s monopoly on criminal justice by once again giving victims a central role.
To be clear in response to some comments, I did not imply that we should go back to Salem witch trials, let alone medieval European trial by ordeal. Nor did I endorse flogging or rampant use of the death penalty, though actual executions were much less common than most people suppose. Nor did I say that we ought to get rid of all modern due process and lawyers and go back to 20-minute-long trials (though one can question how much better modern plea bargaining is in practice). My point was more modest: that the colonists saw justice done and had their day in court. In our Whiggish assumption that the past was irredeemably backward and all change is progress, we often overlook what we have lost in our quest for efficiency.
Today, I’d like to set forth some of the things that changed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, transforming the lay-run morality play into a professionalized plea bargaining assembly line.
First, over the course of the nineteenth century, public prosecutors steadily gained control of American criminal justice at the expense of victims. Some colonies did have public prosecutors, but their role was occasional and limited. To give just one example, some public official was needed to prosecute homicides because, for obvious reasons, the victim could not. But there was nothing like a professional, state-dominated system of routinely detecting, charging, and prosecuting crime.
Prosecutors, of course, lack victims’ personal stake in the outcome. That is good as a way to check private vengeance, but it also opens the door to what economists call agency costs: the distinctive self-interests and incentives that influence public servants. Salaried prosecutors usually have little reason to invest extra work in any one case, particularly if they are part-time employees who can earn more by getting back to their private clients. Prosecutors are also a politically ambitious bunch who may want to burnish their reputations by winning a few high-profile convictions at trial.
In addition, prosecutors may care about keeping their conviction rates up, trading severity of sentences for certainty in the course of plea bargaining (see below). If they care about racking up conviction statistics, and lack personal stakes in any case, they may lean toward prosecuting easier-to-prove victimless crimes. In a victim-run system, such crimes would be prosecuted only where they at least indirectly affected some victim.
Second, defense lawyers gradually came to stand in for defendants. Back in the eighteenth century, victim and defendant would tell their stories at trial almost in a shouting match, letting juries hear both sides first-hand.
As defense lawyers increasingly entered the picture, however, they advised their clients to let them do the talking. Instead of offering excuses or pleading for mercy, defendants increasingly stood mute. That transformed the trial from a morality play between the protagonist and antagonist into a courtroom duel between professional adversaries. And because those adversaries were professionally trained and repeat players, they developed intricate rules of evidence and procedure, further distracting the trial’s focus from who did what and who deserved what.
But third, those courtroom duels became increasingly rare. The sprouting of technical rules made trials much longer, from minutes to hours and then days. (Today, a good number take weeks or even months.)
During the nineteenth century, courts became increasingly busy with civil (tort) lawsuits over streetcar and railroad accidents, factory injuries, and the like. So prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges alike came to share an interest in clearing their dockets through speedy plea bargaining. And since they were all repeat players, they could develop going rates and market prices for recurring crimes.
From the point of view of these insiders, plea bargaining made perfect sense. Lawyers who have seen a lot of trials can predict with some accuracy whether a jury will convict and what sentence a judge will likely impose.
In exchange for offering a charge or sentencing discount, prosecutors free up time and resources to pursue more cases. Defense lawyers cap their clients’ sentence exposure, receive discounts, and get cases over with quickly. And trial judges clear their dockets and avoid the possibility of embarrassing reversals on appeal. Just as private bargains make both sides better off, because each side gets something it values more, so plea bargaining makes all the participants feel better off.
If plea bargaining makes everyone happier and is so efficient, why then does it remain controversial today? That depends on whether one looks at it primarily as a matter of public law or of private (contract) law. The lawyers who negotiate the bargain may all be better off; they efficiently dispose of caseloads and trade off severity of sentences for certainty of more sentences. The lawyers see the process primarily as a contract, a private deal that happens to serve their professional and personal interests as well as their understanding of the public interest.
But that perspective leaves out the public, the laymen to whom criminal justice is not a private bargain but a public morality play. From the public’s point of view, plea bargaining is opaque, it cheapens justice by commodifying it, and it is often dishonest (as when, for example, a charge bargain reduces attempted murder or rape to aggravated assault). Victims may feel sold out and excluded, and defendants may feel they have gotten away with something.
These wildly divergent perspectives on plea bargaining track what I call the great gulf that separates criminal justice insiders from outsiders. The contours of that gulf, and the ways that it harms criminal justice, will be the topic of my next post tomorrow.
I’d like to thank Eugene and his fellow co-conspirators for graciously letting me guest-blog this week about my new book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice, which was just published by Oxford University press and is available here. In a nutshell, the book is about:
1) how America moved from a populist system of public jury trials and punishments to a hidden plea bargaining assembly line run by lawyers;
2) what we have lost in our quest to process ever more cases efficiently; and
3) how we could swing the pendulum part-way back toward greater public involvement and confidence within a lawyer-run system.
I can’t cover the entire book in a week and won’t try to excerpt it. But I hope to give you a sense of how far modern American criminal justice has drifted from its roots and the hidden costs of efficiently boosting the quantity of cases prosecuted at the expense of the quality of how we do it.
Let me start today and tomorrow by canvassing how, without much thought, we have drifted over the past four centuries from the colonial morality play to the modern criminal justice machine. There’s no question that professionalization has brought tangible benefits, especially the ability to handle staggering caseloads. What I want you to see, however, is the price we have paid to purchase more and more efficiency.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of course, most people lived in small towns and villages. Communities were very cohesive, as everyone knew everyone else and word of mouth traveled quickly. They were very often ethnically and religiously homogeneous, with a shared sense of what was and always had been wrong. The downside, of course, is that social and legal pressures to conform could be stifling.
But there were upsides too. Because informal social pressure did so much work in preventing and responding to lawbreaking, there was less need for professional state intervention and coercion. Because the moral consensus emphasized that everyone was weak and fallen, there was more understanding and brotherly love to moderate criminal punishments.
And because morals crimes cut across the social spectrum, criminal justice didn’t create a discrete criminal underclass; everyone could occasionally stumble. People paid their dues, were forgiven, and could reenter society with a clean slate and rise to high office and social station. There was no gulf between the governors and the governed, the law-abiding and the lawless.
It’s also extremely significant that colonial justice was the business of amateurs: laymen, not lawyers. Ordinary white men took turns serving as night watchmen and constables, and when victims shouted out a hue and cry all the neighbors were supposed to rise up to help catch the perpetrator.
Criminal cases were decided by local juries, who applied their common-sense notions of right and wrong to decide who was factually guilty and morally blameworthy. At first there were no American law books or law schools, and very few lawyers overall. Thus, even the judges had little training, and many if not most cases were prosecuted by victims pro se (without lawyers) and defended by defendants pro se, each telling his side of the story.
The lack of professionalization certainly had its downsides; for example, it left amateur night watchmen poorly equipped to deal with dangerous professional criminals. But it also meant that trials were straightforward contests about who had done what and who deserved what punishment.
There were no lawyers to generate and argue over technical rules of evidence and procedure, nor to draw out pretrial motions and post-trial appeals. The side issues that today distract from factual and moral guilt, such as Miranda warnings, the exclusionary rule, and the intricate hearsay rules, were far off in the future.
Before prosecutors took over, victims literally had their day in court; and before defense counsel took over, defendants could not remain mute and simultaneously challenge the prosecution’s case. Criminal trials publicly aired each side’s story, both in deciding factual guilt and in weighing the punishment deserved. It was a matter of common sense, not legal technicality.
So, with apologies to professional legal historians for oversimplifying, that’s a rough snapshot of what colonial American criminal justice looked like. Tomorrow I’ll explain the dramatic changes it underwent over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Rosie, the first judicially approved courtroom dog in New York, was in the witness box here nuzzling a 15-year-old girl who was testifying that her father had raped and impregnated her. Rosie sat by the teenager’s feet. At particularly bad moments, she leaned in....
Now an appeal planned by the defense lawyers is placing Rosie at the heart of a legal debate that will test whether there will be more Rosies in courtrooms in New York and, possibly, other states.
Rosie is a golden retriever therapy dog who specializes in comforting people when they are under stress....
[Defense] lawyers, David S. Martin and Steven W. Levine of the public defender’s office, have raised a series of objections that they say seems likely to land the case in New York’s highest court. They argue that as a therapy dog, Rosie responds to people under stress by comforting them, whether the stress comes from confronting a guilty defendant or lying under oath.
But they say jurors are likely to conclude that the dog is helping victims expose the truth. “Every time she stroked the dog,” Mr. Martin said in an interview, “it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth.”
“There was no way for me to cross-examine the dog,” Mr. Martin added.
My wife and I recently acquired a golden retriever puppy, and we love the breed as much as anyone. Nonetheless, I think there is some merit to the defense lawyers’ concerns. A witness with a cute golden retriever sitting next to her almost always makes a better impression on people than the same witness sans retriever – whether or not she is telling the truth. Every time I walk around the neighborhood with our little Willow, I certainly notice people reacting a lot more favorably than they do when I walk there by myself. You don’t have to be a criminal law expert to recognize that people respond favorably to cute dogs. That’s why they’re such popular pets in the first place.
Does that prove that dogs should be categorically banned from the witness stand? Perhaps not. But it certainly suggests that their presence should be restricted as much as possible and at most limited to cases where there services are absolutely essential, as in the case of seeing-eye dogs, for example.
Yesterday I posted about Fairfax County teacher Sean Lanigan, falsely accused of child molestation. Here’s a bit more:
(1) Lanigan answers Post readers’ questions here. He opines that the accuser’s name should not be published, as she is a troubled 13 year old girl. I was already reconsidering my view on this, and I suppose I ultimately agree
with Lanigan that her name shouldn’t be published–in part because I’ve learned that the Post also doesn’t publish the names of minors accused of crimes. [Apparently, however, the accuser hasn't faced even any internal discipline from the county school system. Good thing for her she decided to make a false allegation of sexual abuse instead of, say, bringing a Tylenol from home.]
(2) I have two extended family members (who are part of completely different branches of the family and are unknown to each other) who were falsely accused of molesting their own children and arrested, just so their wives could get an advantage in custody/divorce proceedings (neither was prosecuted, but much damage was done to both men and their children as their wives pursued their respective vendettas). I also know people who suffered serious abuse that was consistently ignored by authority figures. It seems like somehow a lot of energy gets expended on pursuing false accusations, and not enough on getting the bad guys (and gals). I wish there was an obvious solution, but I don’t have one.
(3) Speaking of false accusations against teachers, Hans Bader has been all over a story that hasn’t received nearly attention:
If the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has its way, more teachers like [Lanigan] will end up being fired even if they are acquitted by a jury of any wrongdoing, and may very well be innocent. It sent a letter to school officials on April 4 ordering them to lower the burden of proof they use when determining whether students or staff are guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault. According to the Department of Education’s demands, schools must find people guilty if there is a mere 51% chance that they are guilty – a so-called preponderance of the evidence standard. So if an accused is found not guilty under a higher burden of proof – like the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that applies in criminal cases – the accused will still be subject to disciplinary action under the lower burden of proof dictated by the Education Department.
Most colleges have historically required “clear and convincing” evidence of guilt. This sensible standard requires less absolute certainty about guilt than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal prosecutions, but more certainty than the mere 51% chance (preponderance) standard demanded by the Education Department. But under pressure from the Education Department, colleges across the country have now abandoned this safeguard against false accusations.
I admit to less certainty than Bader about what the appropriate standard is for accusations of misconduct in the academic context, especially for sexual assault as opposed to “harassment,” the latter of which universities (in part under pressure from DOE) often interpret way too broadly (see relevant discussion in my book, You Can’t Say That!). But I do know that the Department of Education has no business dictating a preponderance of the evidence standard to universities nationwide. Bader provides many links to legal and policy objections to DOE’s new policy.
A Fairfax County gym teacher was falsely accused of molesting a twelve-year old student who had a vendetta against him, and was prosecuted based on the flimsiest of evidence (basically, the word of the student who held a grudge, and her friend, with contrary eyewitness and physical evidence). It took a jury all of forty-seven minutes to acquit him. The Washington Post has the story here.
Two comments: (1) Given the facts related in the Post, this prosecution seems to show, at best, incompetence on the part of Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh. Unfortunately, it’s rare that any consequences follow from incompetence or even deliberate malfeasance by a prosecutor; (2) The Post declined to publish the accuser’s name because she’s “a minor.” Fiddle-faddle. She was mature enough to hatch a scheme that would send an adult to jail to satisfy a grudge against him. Adult misbehavior should have, if not adult consequences, at least consequences. And how are other adults to protect themselves from her accusations if she’s allowed to maintain anonymity?
UPDATE: The Post has an update to its story. Given the following, Detective Nicole Christian, the lead detective in the case, needs to be investigated and potentially disciplined:
But when others – staff, parents – tried to tell Christian anything she didn’t want to hear, she threatened them with prosecution for obstruction of justice, the staff members and parents said. School district investigator Steve Kerr’s investigative report, written after Lanigan’s acquittal, confirmed those claims, noting that: “Because of the jury’s decision, the detective [Christian] advised that she will not pursue criminal charges against [staff member] or [staff member].”
Wow! Christian also refused to listen when the accuser’s friend and co-accuser tried to recant.
The Post also explains its decision not to print the accuser’s name. I’d find its reasoning far more persuasive if it would also decline to print suspects’ names.
Finally, the update makes Fairfax County prosecutors, especially Christian, look even worse than the original story, and the case even weaker.
The old answer seemed to be “yes,” but in recent years the states have split on the subject. State v. Carlin, decided by the Alaska Supreme Court last Friday, switches Alaska from the “yes” column to the “no” column, partly because of growing concerns about victims’ rights:
While abatement [i.e., erasure of the conviction -EV] is contrary to the victims’ rights under the Alaska Constitution, relying on the presumption of guilt after conviction to leave the conviction intact is contrary to the defendant’s right to appeal. Therefore, we choose the middle path, electing to follow those courts that allow the appeal to continue upon substitution. These courts have provided that either the State or the defendant’s estate may request substitution, allowing another party to be substituted for the defendant. Specifically, we agree with the high courts of Washington and Maryland that the defendant’s estate may substitute in for the deceased appellant.
On Monday, I’ll be in the D.C. Circuit arguing an interesting case concerning a crime victim’s right to restitution in child pornography cases.
I represent “Amy”, who is the victim depicted in the “Misty” child pornography series — apparently the most widely disseminated series on the web. She has filed restitution requests of approximately $3,000,000 in cases throughout the country, mostly seeking to recover lost income and psychiatric counseling losses. District courts have reached differing conclusions about whether Amy is entitled to restitution for that amount and, if so, whether individual defendants are liable for the entire amount or some smaller share.
Several weeks ago, Judge Kessler awarded Amy only $5,000 in restitution. Under the Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA), New York attorney James Marsh and I filed a CVRA petition in the D.C. Circuit, asking for full recovery for Amy. The petition is here, along with responses from the defendant and the Government.
Amy’s petition implicates a procedural issue on which the circuits are split: whether crime victims filing a CVRA petition are entitled to ordinary appellate review or merely deferential mandamus review for clear and indisputable errors. I’ve written a law review article taking the position that victims should receive the same sorts of appellate protections that other litigants receive, so I’m looking forward to making my case to the D.C. Circuit on that one. The issue is how to interpret 18 U.S.C. 3771, which requires a court of appeals to “take up and decide” a mandamus petition filed by victims. In my view, this language makes clear that Congress intended to replace discretionary mandamus standards with ordinary appellate standards — a view taken by the 2d, 3rd, 9th, and 11th circuits.
On the substantive restitution issue, the question that has divided district courts is how to interpret 18 U.S.C. 2259, which promises victims of child pornography offenses restitution for the “full amount of the victims losses.” To my mind, this and other provisions in 2259 guantee Amy a right to restitution award of $3 million from each and every defendant who views her images – as an innocent victim of crime, Amy shouldn’t be required to track down all the multiple offenders around the country to obtain full restitution.
The CVRA promises crime victims a decision in 72 hours. Amy has tried to waive that right, but the D.C. Circuit is nonethelss moving at breakneck speed. Amy’s petition was filed on Wednesday, January 26, and this Monday, January 31, the D.C. Circuit ordered oral argument next Monday, February 6.
The Denver University Law Review has just published my latest article, entitled “Protecting Crime Victims in Federal Appellate Courts: The Need to Broadly Construe the Crime Victims’ Rights Act’s Mandamus Provisions.” The article deals with the question of appellate review of denials of assertions of crime victims’ rights by federal district courts.
There is a clear “circuit split” among the various circuits as to whether crime victims are entitled to ordinary appellate review in the appellate courts or merely “clear and indisputable error” review that applies in the setting of mandamus petitions. I argue the crime victims should receive the same sort review as other litigants. For further information on the argument, the abstract can be found below.
Yesterday U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz of the District of Minnesota issued an interesting order regarding a restitution application in a child pornography case. In his order, found here, Judge Schiltz chastises the government for failing to pursue restitution for child pornography cases in his district, even though Congress has made restitution mandatory in such cases. Judge Schiltz wrote:
This Court has recently handled a number of other child-pornography cases in which the United States Probation Office has identified victims who are seeking restitution. Notwithstanding the strict mandates of § 2259, the government has also declined to pursue restitution in those cases. Given the clear Congressional mandate that those convicted of child pornography offenses pay restitution to their victims, the Court will no longer accept silence from the government when an identified victim of a child-pornography offense seeks restitution. If the government declines to seek restitution, the government will have to give the Court some explanation for its decision.
The statute that Judge Schiltz cites, found here, directs district courts to order restitution for the “full amount of the victim’s losses.” In this particular case, a young girl who was raped and had pictures of the crime taken seeks several million dollars in restitution to pay for counseling and other expenses resulting from the crime.
The victim has sought these damages not only from the defendant convicted in this case in Minnesota but more broadly from every defendant convicted of viewing the images taken of her against her will. For instance, she sought such restitution in Texas. There, a federal district court judge ruled that she could not trace her injuries specifically to the particular defendant convicted in that case. She sought mandamus relief in the Fifth Circuit, which held in a recent opinion that the district judge was not “clearly and indisputably” wrong in declining to order restitution for the girl. [Full disclosure: in the district court, I filed a brief on behalf of the National Crime Victims Law Institute supporting the restitution application.]
The issue of restitution in child pornography cases is an interesting and important one that seems destined to ultimately go to the U.S. Supreme Court. My own view is that Congress drafted a very broad restitution statute designed to give the maximum possible recovery to victims of child pornography. Moreover, if any doubt existed about how to interpret this remedial statute, it should be resolved in favor of the innocent victims of these offenses rather than the criminals who continue to cause injury by illegally possessing the pictures in question.