Different color arms and hands reaching up behind a barbed wire fence

I recently attended a Pro Bono Research Groupsponsored presentation on “Criminal Justice Reform.” The meeting opened after a brief introduction by Mike Brickner, ACLU Senior Director, who then joined a panel along with Douglas A. Berman, Professor of Law with the OSU Moritz College of Law, and Brian Howe with the "Ohio Innocence Project."

The overall tenor of the discussion addressed the “disconnect” unanimously viewed as problematic to the local Justice System, concerning what were termed “disastrous social policies” – such as the so-called “War on Drugs” – wherein unrealistic decision-making with regards to sentencing law(s) and policies in actuality results in exacerbating the very problems the institution is supposed to be minimizing.

When asked for each participant's number one priority regarding what productive changes might be made to so obviously a dysfunctional systemic-failure, one respondent spoke of the need todecriminalize poverty: meaning  such draconian measures as the demand for “cash bail” – specifically denominated as a “relic of the past” - along with unaffordable fines being inordinately imposed – leading to the existence of what are in effect ipso facto “debtor's prisons” (something I thought was already afait accompli prescribed prohibition in American law since our country’s inception). Added to this list, mention was made of the over-kill tendencies of police forces arresting persons who are at most guilty of a misdemeanor: when “ticketing” might be the more a appropriate course of action to be taken, versus clogging up the system with unnecessary litigation.

Collateral sanctions were another issue, which is seen to be the cause of great injuries and injustice: like effectually “punishing” those owing child support by taking away one's driver's license – which those professing the competence to fabricating the laws should be keen to realize upfront flies in the face of plain common sense; instead of being given latitude to make such inane polities thatex post facto are often later conceded to have been a grievous mistake.

The irony here lies in the fact that while parents are essentially criminalized for defaulting in what is intrinsically a civil issue; but which is arbitrarily branded as committing “crimes against their children” according to this pernicious brand of logic: the irony of this pernicious legalism is that the state itself ends up essentially victimizing the children in its own right, by severing, and committing often irreparable harm against, inter-familial relationships; which while seeming to promote a certain sense of propriety for the present, yet actually proves overall counter- productive to familial welfare in the long run: detrimental also to Society writ large per such grossly distorted inimical measures.

It's nice to know (I speak facetiously) that such errant political operators – indicative of bureaucratic ineptitude – can so often easily sidestep their responsibilities by conveniently rescinding such missteps by giving themselves a pass – after the wreckage has already been done.

Another pertinent issue discussed had to do with the fact that: due to debilitating circumstances, wherein a person is effectually “denied bail,” and so isawaiting trial – one is ipso facto, therefore being incarcerated prior to having received any viable “conviction” whatsoever; something so obviously opprobrious on the face of it, but which also constitutes an actual impediment to marshaling one's best energies in order to mount a vigorous defense: especially in that it hampers one's ability to assist Counsel even. This travesty plays into the hands of Prosecutors who can net desirable outcomes by effectively “wearing one down” by means of de facto attrition – towards presumably getting a “suspect” to cop out to a plea bargain as soon as possible.

Such shenanigans were presented as the subject of prosecutorial/procedural misconduct that is rampant within the system – which often colludes to allowing defendants to languish for excessive amounts of time pursuant to these types of nefarious ends. The idea of some kind of “pre-trial substitution system” was suggested as a possible answer to this widespread abuse indicative of inherent discrepancies of powers. In fact it was postulated that, due to such excessive powers being afforded to prosecutors in general, and the concomitant lack of discretion judges are prevented from exercising: that a too big to fail proclivity has set-in; and quite prevails amongst this profession - which then tends to over-inflate the “threat to public safety” factor (for job security purposes?); and which also contributes to, and explains, the profound lack of transparency in the justice system overall.

For instance, one panelist criticized the farcical intentions of achieving supposed uniformity of application per the “minimum sentencing” device, which in reality is in fact most unequally applied: being contrived as an extortionate “tool” in the Prosecutor's arsenal, whereby he is able to insidiously gain leverage by being able to “threaten” any person(s) who might be recalcitrant to their mainly self-serving prescriptions. In conclusion to this motif, it was proposed that a good amount of criminalized behaviors really ought to be downgraded (i.e. decriminalized) to the level of being definitively most appropriate as merely basic” misdemeanors”.

The subject of “determinate” vs. “indeterminate” sentencing procedures(re: ”Old Law”) was brought up by a member of the audience who has considerable years working inside the Department of Corrections. The point was made how, due to a lack of any semblance of hope for achieving parole, such an ingrained sense of unfairness has contributed substantially to an endemic breakdown of prison discipline – as people are feeling insensibly warehoused – while never being given any indication as to “how much is enough?”

Judging from first-hand experience of having witnessed this fraud, I see this as nothing but prima facie cruel and unusual punishment in its own right. It was remarked how the ludicrously inane catch-all phrase“ the seriousness of the crime” is conveniently invoked in shutting down a priori anyone's bid for release – in most cases, after having undergone many years of grueling incarceration!! The prospect of some form of incentive-based sentence diminishment was argued, and the term “presumptive release” was proposed as an idea whose time has come for an Institution that ought to resolve its raison d'etre by showing itself concerned with the propriety of its actions.

What was especially intriguing about this substantive panel of expert's testimonies, was the degree to which the salient points made by them was to be later echoed and reinforced by a second panel hosted by “The Criminal Law Society.” The participants of this forum were Deborah Williams, a federal public defender for the Southern District of Ohio; Ric Simmons, Chief Justice Professor for the Administration of Justice and Rule of Law; and James Lowe, First Assistant, Criminal Division, at the Franklin County's Prosecutor's Office. Ms. Williams, with over thirty years in the field, was quite cynical of a System which she opined “cannot right itself”; and which she vehemently referred to as a de facto “travesty” of unconscionable proportions.

Emphasis was reiterated on how Legislatures confer exorbitant power(s) to prosecutors, while limiting (per Legislative codification et al) the due discretion of judges – dovetailing perfectly with the former panel's assessment(s). This undue concentration of interests engenders a flagrant violation of the tenet of Presumption of Innocence – whereby people are literally jailed in lieu of any “fast and speedy trial”: a most blatant infraction before any due-conviction is rightfully given; while also serving to bolster an adversarial police force's arresting of persons under often the false-pretexts of vague and general suspicions; knowing with confidence that such willful discrepancies are usually sure to be rubber-stamped by such power-mongering elitist-minded enclaves. Her appraisal of the level of corruption integral to the system was underscored by the alarming fact that a whopping 97% of federal suspects alone end up “pleading guilty.”

The subject of reforms gone wrong was brought up with panelists pointedly describing how often profoundly deleterious consequences result from inanely aberrant polities being instituted; referencing once again the disingenuous “War on Drugs” and the N.Y.C. “Stop & Frisk” debacles. Not only do such disastrous polities involve the wasteful spending of unsustainably exorbitant sums of monies and resources, with appallingly minimal-returns: but they entail a major disruption into the lives of the citizenry generally – producing untold levels of collateral damage such entrenched incompetents who engineer such schemes are rarely, if ever, held-to-account for making.

Lack of uniformity in sentencing, highlighted in inequitable regional-disparities, was underscored as a major disconnect within the system. Because of a certain bias pervasive throughout extant entrenched-interests, such factors integral to critiquing such a social aberrance was deemed a potentially plausible possibility, in that: after all, we are dealing with quite “human-driven” establishments in the final analysis.

The topic of collateral sanctions was once again brought up, revealing the absurdity of such things as 540 possible consequences for just the one crime (among many) of “criminal theft”. The monthly costs of incarceration were given as $2,665.00 for prison; $2,175.00 for halfway houses; $340.00 for probation; and $8-12.00 for monitoring. Incidentally, Ohio is said to have the most parole officers of any state. It was virtually unanimous among participants that this wholesale travesty of justice represents an outrageous cost to taxpayers. Also, the hindrances to successful reintegration by "restored citizens" was recapped as counterproductive to individuals on many levels. For instance, while they discover they are still beholden to confining formal and legal restrictions per se, they are then faced with the stigma of community and socially imposed impedimenta.

Finally, the horrid treatment specifically meted out to those classedas sex offenders was decried: in that while others may realize some sense of finality in having effectually paid one's debt to society, these unfortunate singled-out lot are quite comprehensively denied ever being able to expect a way out of a predicament cruelly intended to taint them for life. Personally I have witnessed such excessive cruelty by a continual clobbering over the head of such inmates by a condoned sadistic form of mental torture. That is not consonant with American justice in my book.

Overall it was said that what we are dealing with is ultimately a “political' problem” where criminal issues and political interests intertwine at the highest echelons of government. The fact is, we are dealing with a reactionary backlash of officialdom fearing the least negative media exposure to the perception of being “soft on crime.” Concomitantly we see the political exploitation of the fear-factor. "[F]ear is built into the system" was how it was poignantly expressed. Add to this the fad of media sensationalism, wherein often disingenuous scare tactics are deliberately-employed to create panic – pursuant to swaying public-opinion, and we are left with a system that plays into the hands of purely political vested-interests of the most crass nature; which obscene interests directly benefit by inducing mass paranoia to further their most sordid ends via designed media hype.

It was recommended that the “bottom line” (pun intended) is that no serious appraisal can be postulated without considering the financial dimension(s) i.e. how profits play into the equation impacting the political spectrum. In the interests of taking on a morbid mind-set which fuels a largely monopolistic profit-driven schema of extortionate exploitation, tantamount to de facto “trafficking in persons” in its own right, certain remedial measures were suggested under the rubric: "all change starts locally." Public interface with prosecutors was one avenue suggested to be considered. “Direct Democracy Initiatives” was another – to feasibly induce responsiveness from inert incumbent operatives otherwise resistant to change.

A definitively 'political course of action' was underscored in the crucial need to “take back the narrative of who's incarcerated?” What seems imperative here is the need to utilize salutary “alternatives” to merely “punitive-justice.” Community service was re-emphasized as one potent option that represents a “huge asset” that should be utilized – by allowing persons to realize a restorative sense of justice in giving something back for their errancies.

“Earned-credit” is another tool potentially able to incentivize positive behavioral change. Good data is indispensable to correctly evaluating any such implemented processes, with utilization of proper criteria, versus standardized “junk science” – as simply a convenient modus operandi to maintaining a defunct status quo. The basic inference is that those most “in-the-know” concur we are dealing with a major “dysfunctional Corrections Department.”

Issues like unnecessary duplication of agencies, and rules effectually tending to “trip one up” are seen to be counterproductive aberrancies essentially part and parcel to the system. It was deemed proactive that we actually “highlight those ensnared” in the web of criminal-justice, and accordingly discover means to “scale-back” the outlandish numbers of those forced to undergo injurious deprivations at the hands of the state, and at the “expense” of the citizenry.

In conclusion, we are faced with a conundrum of “money vs. morality”: “wallets” vs. fairness; jobs vs. justice; and vested-interests vs. the public welfare modus operandi wasting extraordinary amounts of monies with short-shrift on returns or “value for the dollar.” Whether we initiate the necessary overhaul via reduction of human commodities as bad investment-vehicles, or, on the basis of it being just “the right thing to do”: the fundamental aim of proprietous reform is the same.

Ohio has the sixth largest prison population in the country, with the eighth highest rate of incarceration. When such an experienced cadre of professionals in the field call for the need to reform so pervasive a crisis affecting our societal-welfare, along with a sensible “simplification” of procedures and process – such as that of community control, then it's clearly time to listen and act to revamp a morass of stagnant, petrified institutional deformities too long now needing attention.

Whether through the tack of “ballot Initiatives,” or per purely legislative maneuvering, it's time for a sane reappraisal of how we do business by creating a new apparatus more beneficial to society, and individuals at large: and more commensurate with the egalitarian ideals we profess to espouse as integral to our system of governance. If Ohio “takes the cake” on such dismal failures needing rectified, it might restore a sense of equanimity by taking the lead in enacting a salutary transmogrification towards a truly workable avant garde enterprise, where maximized returns can be realized in terms of monies spent and lives bettered.