A Tilted Playing Field

04-22-2018Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

The Arizona Faith Network (formerly known as the AZ Ecumenical Council) is a coalition of various faith communities including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix that collaborate on a variety of issues of social concern. They recently put forward a statement on Criminal Legal Reform (https://www.arizonafaithnetwork.org/message-on-criminal-legal-reform ). The purpose of the message is to encourage people of faith, faith leaders, and faith communities to add their voices to this call and to advocate for a "fundamental transformation of mindset about the criminal legal system." The message itself has some very worthy points that should be considered in any Criminal Justice Reform. Of particular note is recognizing the special needs of juvenile offenders, stopping the privatization of prisons and jails, fostering the reintegration of offenders into the community.

But there is one gaping hole in the statement: the need for what I would term “Prosecutor Accountability”. We give Prosecutors on all levels, federal, state, county an immense amount of power and almost unlimited resources which can easily tilt the playing field and the administration of justice. With that level of power and resources the need for high levels of accountability should be obvious but too often Prosecutors get almost no oversight. The result is false prosecutions, malicious prosecutions, prosecutorial misconduct and the withholding of exculpatory evidence. In only the rarest of cases is a prosecutor held accountable or sanctioned for such abuses. This creates injustices and often the incarceration of not guilty people. If justice officials are not held to the same standard that you or I are held to, then none of us can be assured of fair and equal treatment under the law.

We are watching this play out in real time with the fights between Congress and the Justice Department/FBI. The refusal of the Justice Department to hand over documents to Congress that has oversight responsibility reveals a Justice System Bureaucracy that is way too powerful, arrogant, and unaccountable. This sort of resistance to oversight can happen on all levels, in the almost any case. Defense attorneys often have to fight really hard for access to documents and evidence, judges are too often deferential to prosecutors and slap them on the wrist rather than holding them in contempt. If you are the average person you probably don't have the resources to fight the bureaucracy. The point is also to bleed you to death so that eventually you give in and take a plea deal just to end the travesty of justice whether guilty or innocent. Once a conviction is obtained it is very, very difficult to get a Court to consider new evidence or that the original trial was so unfair as to overturn the conviction. Even the US Supreme Court has admitted that if due process was followed properly then an innocent person might be convicted or even executed with no legal recourse (other than executive clemency by a governor or President).

Another problem is that with the advent of laws such as Three Strikes and mandatory minimums, sentencing authority is pretty much taken away from the discretion of judges and given to prosecutors, since they determine which laws to prosecute you on. What I learned working in the Criminal Justice System is that every case is different and judges are the most impartial players at a trial and therefore they should determine the sentence (based on Sentencing Guidelines). These laws have directly impacted the size of the prison population and often create lots of unintended consequences. Consequences such as having to make room in our prisons for those sentenced to mandatory sentences by paroling those who are not, and who are often some of the more dangerous criminals.

I would also add to AZ Faith Networks message the need to video record all police interrogation and confessions. Through the use of manipulating interrogation techniques, false confessions can be obtained which of course can lead to false convictions. Also, we need to rethink the laws on what a jury can be told or not, such as the motivation a key witness may have, such as getting a lighter sentence in exchange for testimony or whether or not they are a “jail house informant”. Anybody can twist the facts if it is the difference between a 2yr or a 38yr sentence.

It is true that our Criminal Justice System is one of the better systems in the world. After all we are not China, Iran or Turkey or the kangaroo courts of some third world countries. We have one of the better Justice Systems precisely because we have a system of accountability. If we want to keep our system just then oversight and accountability of prosecutors, district attorney’s, county prosecutors and all who have law enforcement powers, are the keys to ensuring justice for all under the law.

Love, Fr. John B.

PS Many thanks to all who participated in our Parish Festival this weekend and to all of our sponsors and donors a big THANK YOU!