2013 Symposium: We Have People Serving 10-15 For Possessing Marijuana And 10-15 Years For Felony DUI Yet Murderers, Gang Members, And Violent Criminals Walk Free. Does Our Legal System Need To Be Reformed?

Cartwright: Absolutely. We waste a lot of resources prosecuting people for ridiculous charges like possessing marijuana yet murders, rapists, and violent criminals go free. Going back to an earlier discussion, we need to decriminalize drugs, tax them and regulate that industry. We accomplish nothing by locking people up who have possession of marijuana. It hasn’t stopped people lighting up. Nearly half the federal prison population is incarcerated on drug charges. About a quarter of the states’ prison populations are incarcerated on drug charges. This all costs the taxpayers money.

But you know what? Attorneys and prisons are getting rich off the war on drugs while the taxpayers are losing out big time, and overzealous prosecutors are just building their resumes on easy prosecutions. A huge problem with incarcerating people on non-violent drug charges is that they get mixed in with a prison population that includes gang members. Then guess what? They get in the gang and we they get out of prison the non-violent drug offender turns to gang violence.

Felony DUI is a bit of a different story. If you get behind the wheel of a car after you’ve been drinking and you wrap yourself around a tree, so be it. You’ve only hurt yourself and the tree. If you kill or maim someone else, it’s a different story. An accident? Yes. Does it change the fact that you’ve killed or maimed someone? No. Should these people be incarcerated in with the gang members in prison? I don’t think so. Perhaps we should have penal farms or something of that sort where these people go or some type of minimum security prison just for offenders like this.

Here’s where I have a real problem. Ever notice the people you read about got arrested for felony DUI and they killed someone have had prior DUI arrests? How many times do we let these people get off? Thank the lawyers. Now, having said this, I think it’s ridiculous that a husband and wife go out to dinner and have a couple glasses of wine and get pulled over at a traffic stop roadblock and now they’ve got a DUI. If we really wanted to stop drinking and driving on moral grounds here in the United States we would equip ever car with a breathalyzer that has to be taken before the engine starts. You pass the test and the engine starts. You fail and you’re sitting for a while or you’re taking a cab. Ah, but here again, lawyers don’t want this. They want you to pay them tens of thousands of dollars to get you out of the DUI on the first offense. I just don’t think we have a real good balance with the system right now.

But here’s something else to think about. Know why some states are decriminalizing marijuana? It’s money. It’s not only tax money, but they’ll also be getting money from arresting people for DUI marijuana. Why are so many big lawyers and law firms supporting legalizing marijuana? They’re going to profit from representing people arrested for DUI marijuana. And the prisons are going to get rich off of incarcerating them.

North Carolina: America’s legal system has been progressively deteriorating since the 1970’s and has eroded more seriously with each passing year. A number of factors play into reforming our legal system and many suggestions have been made to remedy, reevaluate and reform the current system. Any reform of the legal system should establish a goal of precision and efficiency, which includes concentrating on the requirements of incarceration, duration and length of sentences in proportion to the crimes committed, and direct focus on the issues or crimes that receive unwarranted punishment, along with parole duration, prison overcrowding and the enormous waste of tax dollars to support prisons. Prisons should be sources of rehabilitation in which prisoners can return to society and become productive members within it. Instead of maximum and lengthy sentences for first time and low-level offenders, and the endless, bureaucratic appeal process that goes along with incarceration, prisoners must be given the tools to manage their lives outside of prison. Education, counseling, life skills, socialization skills, job training and other services must be part of sentencing requirements. No prisoner should be released to the real world without these skills to adapt to a new environment.

Though not all prisoners can be rehabilitated, those who can be must be afforded the opportunity, and low level inmates and first time offenders must be placed in appropriate prison environments or rehabilitation program facilities, rather than maximum security prisons that generate violence, hate, discontent and the impetus to return to a life of crime.

Prison Bureau statistics reveal that low-level drug users and first time drug offenders make up the majority of prison inmates. Over the past 20 years, drug arrests have increased by nearly 1000%. Ridiculous amounts of money are simply spent imprisoning people for menial charges and first time offenses. Instead, those monies should be invested in systems of rehabilitation and refinement of the parole system. Someone imprisoned for a number of years cannot be expected to return to a normal life of finding a job and a place to live, working, reporting and submitting payment to a parole officer, and become an immediate success. Outside the prison gates, rehabilitation must consist of post-release programs, work programs, and halfway houses for those attempting to adjust to a new environment. Former prisoner must come to know how to contribute to a community rather than damage it, no matter the depth of their previous offenses.

Within the legal system itself, all first time offenders and low-level drug related offenders need to be afforded a speedy, efficient and problem solving trial. Mandatory minimum sentences must be challenged and judges given the discretion to decide prison time duration and degree of punishment. Prosecuting attorneys hard on crime must be re-educated as to the kind of prosecutions necessary for low level prisoners and the implications of mandatory and lengthy sentences on such prisoners. Sentencing must include time spent in rehabilitation programs, whether in or outside of a prison, as well as after prison re-entry programs that provide for opportunities upon release.

Until the American legal system is separated from the political system and the thousands of criminal offenses in the U.S. Code and Code of Federal Regulations, along with its associated minimum and mandatory sentencing, control of prison funding, judges and prosecutors, there will be no changes in the legal system. Without the necessary overhaul, prisons and jails will always be at maximum capacity and people imprisoned within them will endure long sentences, bureaucratically consumed appeals and little chance of a normal and rehabilitated life.

Orlando: Our legal system is in desperate need of reform. The recent sentencing of a young, wealthy, white Texas boy, convicted of the wrongful deaths of four people in a drunk-driving related crash, illustrates the scope of the problem clearly. Ethan Couch, the 16-year-old son of wealthy Texas socialites, was driving his family’s pick-up truck with a blood alcohol level of .24, when it struck an SUV on the side of the road. The SUV had a flat tire, and a mother and her two daughters were working on it, along with a local youth pastor who had stopped to help them. All four were killed instantly, and several others suffered serious injuries.

At Couch’s trial, his defense team included a psychologist, who testified that Couch’s upbringing in an affluent household had prevented him from learning proper impulse control. In short, he suffered from “affluenza” and should not be held responsible for his actions. The judge sentenced Couch to 10 years probation, and mandated alcohol counseling. Couch would serve no jail time for killing four people.

The Couch story represents one of the most transparent, naked incarnations of fact in this country, that the legal system is a means of extending the social benefits of affluence. For all the neutrality of language surrounding the law, for all the progress made in civil rights cases, the law is a tool for the rich to maintain their privilege. Getting to the root of this problem is complicated. The level of class, race, and gender diversity in judges is part of the problem. Another part is the way judges are selected, as their position as elected officials makes them beholden to donors as much as any other elected official. Yet another is byzantine legal system itself, which requires expert interpretation to avoid jail, and enables those with expert interpretations carte blanche to bend, if not outright break, the law.

These are important problems. In a society that allows Couch to walk free while imprisoning one out of every eleven African-Americans, all prisoners are political prisoners. These injustices hurt every single one of us, and they cannot be allowed to continue.

Michigan: Yes, we do need to reform our legal system. Our prisons are overloaded with the average cost of housing a prisoner around $25,ooo per year. As much as I hate to say it, we are going to have to let the minor offenders go free. We can’t afford to lock up a student for smoking a joint. 47% of marijuana offenders housed in our prisons are non-citizens. Should we be housing them or send them back to their country? Violent crimes should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and we need to use the death penalty when the crime calls for it. We give prisoners too many rights. Once you are found guilty-you have no rights. People are not in fear of going to prison anymore. We need to change this. Maybe minor criminals should go to a work camp. Criminals are lazy and afraid of work. Maybe this would deter them.

Washington, DC: The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 6,937,600 people in the adult correctional system at the end of 2012. As such, 1 in every 35 adults, or 2.9% percent of adult residents in the USA, was on probation, parole, or incarcerated in jail or prison in 2012. Among people on probation, about 54 % were non-Hispanic whites, about 30% were non-Hispanic blacks, and about 76 % were male offenders. Among people in prison, black males were 6 times more likely and Hispanic males were 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males (even more striking, black males aged 18-19 were 9.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males). Most alarming, between 1991 and 2011 the number of females imprisoned for committing new violent offenses grew by 83%. Thus, while the American population constitutes 4.45% of world population, it has almost 25% of world prison population.

Why does the American justice system have such high incarceration rate? As the Bureau of Justice Statistics demonstrates, among state prisoners in 2010 (the latest data available), 53% were incarcerated for violent offenses, 18% for property offenses, 17% for drug crimes, and 10% for public order offenses (such as DYI, court offenses, commercialized vice, etc.). However, among federal prisoners in 2011, 48% were incarcerated for drug offenses, 7.6% for violent offenses, and 11% for immigration offenses.

As data demonstrates, one of the main reasons for a high incarceration rate is a declared “war on drugs,” which puts thousands of people behind bars for carrying or using even the small amount of marijuana, an illegal drug on federal level. Moreover, up until 2007, crack cocaine was considered a much more dangerous drug than powder cocaine (100:1), which led to a disproportionately higher number of black people incarcerated. That policy led to devastating results regarding the class of low-waged black people. Also, the sentences in the USA are much longer compared to sentences given for similar crimes in most countries: a first drug offense in the USA often brings a sentence of 5-10 years compared to a 6 months sentence; an average burglary sentence is 16 months compared to 6 months sentence in Canada. Plus, a three-strike law puts many people behind bars for a minimum of 25 years, a much longer sentence than anywhere else in the world.

Undoubtedly, the American justice system needs to be reformed. Many people are being incarcerated for relatively minor crimes while those who truly deserve to be put behind the bars walk. Law enforcement forces and their budgets are stretched to the maximum pursuing minor offenders while gang members are free to commit their acts of violence all over the country. Also, more resources need to be invested in rehabilitating offenders in order to prevent them from committing criminal offenses in the future.

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