While prosecutors have a large amount of discretion in their work, they are not permitted to hide evidence that could be exculpatory for a defendant.
In a recent Colorado case, prosecutors possessed two reports that that pointed to other suspects since the beginning of the case, yet disclosed them 15 months after defendant David Bueno was convicted.
Bueno and codefendent Alex Perez were charged in 2004 with the stabbing death of inmate Jeffrey Heird at Limon Correctional Facility. The state sought the death penalty against them.
Defense attorneys had specifically asked for evidence relating to the other suspects mentioned in the report. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of charges against Bueno and Perez.
Such prosecutorial misconduct is an example of the importance of holding prosecutors accountable both in the courtroom and at the ballot box.
Serving as yet another example of the importance of making informed decisions when choosing judges at the ballot box, a judge made an appalling racist statement during a speaking engagement at a law school. While delivering a lecture on mediation and negotiation at the University of Calgary, Justice Kristine Eidsvik told the class that she felt uncomfortable walking into a room “full of big dark people” during dispute resolutions and that she was used to being in an “ivory tower” where she was “removed from the riff raff.” Judge Eidsvik was serving as the school’s judge in residence for the academic year. She later apologized for her comments.
Judges have the power to profoundly shape the criminal justice system. Given that racial bias is an issue at various levels in the criminal justice system, it is imperative that voters choose candidates who value racial equity. Eidvik’s shockingly overt racism poses a serious threat to justice, and judges with ideas like this cannot be tolerated.
by Molly Riesenberger
The ACLU report, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons,” presents the findings of a yearlong investigation into “debtors’ prisons,” exposing how poor defendants are increasingly being jailed for failure to pay legal debts that they cannot afford. Flashback to 1983 – The Court ruled in Bearden vs. Georgia that imprisoning a defendant who was unable to pay his debts, despite bona fide efforts to do so, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It further held that a judge must determine whether the defendant has the ability to pay the debt, but “willfully” refuses. Today, courts nationwide habitually ignore the precedent established by Bearden vs. Georgia. In fact, states now collect legal debts more aggressively from men and women who are financially unable to pay than from those with the means to do so. The report unearths the damage that debtor’s prisons do to citizens, the economy and the criminal justice system.
The ACLU investigation focuses on legal financial obligations (LFOs), which is a general term describing “all fines, fees and costs associated with a criminal sentence” (ACLU). While LFOs are seen as essential revenue to the courts, there is not data showing that their efforts to collect debts actually generate income – in fact, incarcerating those unable to pay ends up costing states even more than unpaid legal debts.
LFOs disproportionally hurt racial and ethnic minorities, as they are disproportionally represented among the prisoner population. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that there is racial bias in the criminal justice system – African-Americans and Latinos in Washington State were excessively arrested for drug possession, more likely to be searched, and less likely to be released without bail than those who are white. According to the ACLU report, “These same disparities extend to the assessment of LFOs: In Washington, Hispanic defendants generally receive higher LFOs than white defendants convicted of similar offenses, and persons convicted of drug offenses receive significantly higher LFOs than those convicted of violent crimes” (ACLU).
The result of LFO collection is a two-tiered system of justice: the poorest defendants are punished more severely than those with financial means. Ironically, the poorest defendants are the ones who ends up paying much more in fines and fees that those who can afford their LFOs. For example, in Washington state, all unpaid legal debts are subject to 12% interest (ACLU). This eventually turns into a lifelong debt – a typical criminal defendant with an average LFO that makes a monthly payment on that LFO would still have a legal debt 30 years post-conviction.
The ACLU came up with a list of recommendations for state and local officials to remedy some of the most serious debtors’ prison abuses:
- Defendants should not be incarcerated for failure to pay LFOs that they cannot afford – the court must consider if the defendant is able to pay and then decide if the failure to pay is willful.
- States should repeal any law that results in poor defendants being punished more severely than defendants with means, and there should be consistent guidelines for assessing LFOs.
- Judges should receive training in the determination of defendants who cannot afford to pay prior to incarceration. Furthermore, judges should appoint counsel to defendants at proceedings to determine LFO sanctions.
- Defendants should be given the opportunity to repay their debts through alternative methods, such as community service.
- Data should be collected about LFO collection in each jurisdiction – the costs of collection, how collected funds are distributed – broken down by race, crime and location.
- Court should be funded enough so that they do not need to collect LFOs.
- The government should hold oversight hearings on the rise of debtors’ prisons.
Cyclical injustice results when our system incarcerates the impoverished, while allowing those with greater means to serve their sentence by simply signing a check.
The North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities (NCCRED), the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy, and the Wake Forest School of Law Criminal Justice Program, present “The New Law and Order: Working Towards Equitable and Community-Centered Policing in North Carolina” on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., in the Worrell Professional Center, Room 1312. The event is free and open to the public. Four hours of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit from the North Carolina Bar Association has been approved.
The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a $2 million grant to Mecklenburg County’s Department of Criminal Justice Services to continue building on local efforts to implement criminal justice system reforms and safely reduce Mecklenburg County’s jail population. The grant is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a more than $100 million national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.
The grant will be used by Mecklenburg County’s Department of Criminal Justice Services and partners to provide additional support and expert technical assistance to implement strategies that address the main drivers of local jail incarceration, including unfair and ineffective practices that take a particularly heavy toll on people of color, low-income communities, and people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
More information about the work underway in Mecklenburg County can be found on www.mecknc.gov
As recent months have unfolded, we are all bombarded with news of threats to the dreams of dreamers, state-sanctioned hatred in many forms, and a return to a criminal justice system that seeks to address social problems by locking people away. As soon as we are presented with one battle to be fought, another one surfaces. In times such as these, what can we do to protect our communities? One answer is to dig deeper into the power that we have as citizens of a democratic society. We must continue to vote. This means educating ourselves about the roles of all elected officials, not just those we hear about regularly. Carolina Justice Policy Center, CJPC, is launching a new voter education initiative to do just that.
Some elected officials that we regularly overlook are those who operate within our criminal justice system. Sheriffs, District Attorneys (DAs), Judges, and County Commissioners collectively have the power to change lives in profound ways. In North Carolina, a sheriff is the highest ranking law enforcement officer in each county. While specific duties may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, all sheriffs have duties related to three branches of law enforcement including policing, courts/criminal justice, and corrections/jail. The District Attorney (DA) is the elected public official in each county who represents the state in the prosecution of all criminal matters. North Carolina Judges preside over courtroom proceedings. While these are the basic roles of these officers, the impact they can have on the life of an average citizen is far from basic.
Carolina Justice Policy Center has prepared an educational program aimed at educating voters on the roles these elected official play and giving you the tools that you need to make sure your voice is heard when developing policies and practices in their respective offices. CJPC wants to come to your meetings, gatherings, churches and community events to educate and empower. If you are interested in CJPC presenting to your group, please call Attorney Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director of CJPC, at 919-682-1149 or via email at email@example.com