Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Debating habeas appeals

Over at the Legal Affairs Debate Club, Ted Frank from the American Enterprise Institute and Druck Bruck from the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse are debating the proposed Streamlined Procedures Act and the underlying importance (or lack thereof, depending upon one's perspective) of habeas appeals.

Here's an excerpt from Bruck's remarks:

In 1968, when Richard Nixon first turned "law and order" into a staple of American political campaigning, there were about 200,000 prisoners in this country. Now, many tough-on-crime election campaigns later, there are 2 million, and we're locking up a higher percentage of our own citizens than any other nation on earth. Life imprisonment without parole, a rare punishment for most of our history, is now commonplace (and not just for murderers). And we're completely alone among all the western industrial democracies in our retention of the death penalty.

Any system that punishes so many people so severely is going to make serious mistakes. The state courts are supposed to catch and correct most of these mistakes. But most state judges have to run for re-election. Wrongly-convicted or wrongly-sentenced prison and death row inmates are not exactly a formidable voting bloc, while people who don't like soft-on-crime judges are. Add to the mix the fallibility of all government functionaries—including police, prosecutors, and courts—and the fact that most criminal defendants have to rely on underpaid and overworked court-appointed lawyers, and we should be able to see that we've assembled the ingredients for a lot of injustice: it's only tolerable because for all of us who aren't in prison, what's out of sight is out of mind.

To follow the ongoing debate, go here.

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