For a couple of weeks in what proved to be the climactic stages of this year’s nominating process, the nation’s pundits were talking about perceived offenses to Catholic sensibilities. As one of these pundits, a colleague of mine, noted, it was the first time in years, if not decades, that presidential candidates treated Catholics as a monolithic voting bloc. The candidates and the pundits assumed that all Catholics took offense over the Bob Jones University incident, and that their wounds required addressing. Clearly John McCain’s supporters believed that the Bob Jones incident could be exploited to their advantage, and Bush himself sought to limit the perceived damage by issuing an apology on the eve of the New York primary.
Nobody talked about the more substantive offenses to Catholic sensibility and morality, like the death penalty. Bush did not apologize for presiding over the executions of more than 100 people in his five-plus years as the governor of Texas. Like Bill Clinton in 1992, Bush took time off the campaign trail to return to his home state for an execution. No letters were dispatched to Catholic clergy apologizing for an offense given.
The death penalty probably will not be an issue in this year’s campaign. Governor Bush has demonstrated, in the most graphic way possible, his support for state-sponsored executions. Al Gore, like President Clinton, is a quintessential New Democrat on matters of criminal justice; he and the President have purged the party of its supposed softness on crime, in part by supporting the death penalty. So the two presidential nominees won’t have much to discuss about the country’s rush to kill in the name of justice.
That would be unfortunate at any time, but particularly this year, when there seems to be the beginning of a grass-roots discussion not only of the death penalty, but of a criminal justice system that either enables or tolerates gross injustices. We recently passed a shameful milestone: Our prison population reached 2 million. Is this really the kind of society we wish to have?
Some observers, no doubt, would counter by saying that the nationwide drop in crime over the last decade or so should demonstrate, once and for all, that America’s criminal justice system is working. The streets of most big cities, and many medium-size cities as well, are a good deal safer than they were when America’s prison population was a mere million or so. Shouldn’t that be the end of any suggestion that something is wrong with our policing and court system?
At first glance, the ends-justifies-the-means argument might seem to have merit. We have more people in prison than ever before, and our crime rate is reaching 40-year lows. Coincidence? Many big-city mayors, prosecutors, police chiefs and commentators don’t seem to think so.
But that argument assumes that everybody, or nearly everybody, in prison is, in fact, guilty of the crimes they were convicted of, and that our courts and prosecutors are as flawless as can reasonably be expected.
In recent months, there has been no shortage of evidence to suggest that we are looking the other way, pointing to charts that show amazing drops in crime, while innocent people rot in prisonor, chillingly, on death row. An article in The New York Times late last year indicated that as many as one prisoner in seven on death row did not commit the crimes for which he or she was convicted. And one governor, George Ryan of Illinois, became so concerned about flaws in his state’s justice system that he ordered a moratorium on executions. He fears that he or his successors will one day put an innocent person to death in the name of justice.
Adding to the debate is a new book titled Actual Innocence, by two attorneys, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Dwyer. In examining a series of serious crimes for which innocent people were imprisonedone of them was less than a week away from an appointment with an executionerthe authors present a chilling account of what goes on in our courtrooms and police station houses.
This is no bleeding-heart treatise seeking to explain the root causes of violent crime. Dwyer himself has argued that his work is not intended as an anti-death penalty book. In fact, the authors have produced the ultimate tough-on-crime argument: that society ought to make sure that it imprisons the right people.
There are endless variations on this simple proposition: We ought to make sure that our police officers, who have a thankless task, are well-trained guardians of the law and not lawbreakers themselves. We must demand that poor people accused of crimes have a real chance to defend themselves, for the principle of presumed innocence extends to all socioeconomic groups. We must be unafraid to look closely at a system in which tens of thousands of our fellow citizens may be wrongly imprisoned.
And we ought to have an elevated discussion about our collective enthusiasm for killing people in the name of the people.