Proponents of longer prison sentences argue they accomplish multiple objectives, including properly punishing a person who commits a crime, making it safer for the rest of society and serving as a deterrent to others who may commit similar crimes.
District attorneys are among the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. They decide where to focus prosecutorial resources. They determine whether to charge the most serious provable offense or lesser offenses. They choose whether to stack charges, and whether to choose charges carrying harsh, mandatory minimum sentences. They decide what to offer in plea negotiations, and whether to threaten additional charges against uncooperative defendants.
An unfortunate fact about our criminal justice system is that minorities are frequently sentenced to more time for the same crimes as whites. In the U.S., African-Americans, for example, make up 13.3 percent of the population but account for 38 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons, according to federal data.
In many ways, news that disparities exist in the U.S. criminal justice system based on race evoke thoughts of Captain Renault, Claude Rains' character in "Casablanca," shutting down Rick's Café and exclaiming, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
Recently, an array of faith-based, civil rights and other advocacy organizations announced they are seeking an independent review of the Milwaukee Police Department's policing practices. Milwaukee is far from immune to the nationwide debate brought up by instances of what appear to be excessive force used against unarmed, typically African-American defendants. At stake is the public's trust in the police force and even the justice system.
As we celebrate our nation's Independence Day, it's appropriate to reflect not only on that which makes us proud to be Americans, but also on how we can hand down to our children and grandchildren a system of justice that honors the Founding Fathers and the generations of patriots who followed them. We have much work to do, because at this time in our history the United States' criminal justice system is broken. I provide a close examination of many of the problems in my book, "Illusion of Justice: Inside Making a Murderer and America's Broken System" (Harper 2017), but I also believe we can fix what is ailing.
The Sixth Amendment provides one of the most recognizable lines from the Miranda warning: "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you."