Much has been written about the “wrongfully convicted” in the past several months. There is no question that being locked up for a crime you did not commit is a grave injustice, especially if facilitated by law-enforcement or by prosecutorial misconduct. And while we would all like to envision our politicians as having our best interests at heart and our judiciary as wise and impartial; meting out uniform justice to all comers, the truth is that “wrongful convictions” are often facilitated (or “aided and abetted,” if you will) by an indifferent judiciary and a Congress that is more concerned about reelection than serious social issues. Of course, the “over-convicted” or (over-sentenced) suffer from the same precipitating causes and are no less tragic, demoralizing or dehumanizing.
Because of the sheer disparity in numbers between the two groups, the impact on society of the “over-sentenced” is a thousand-times greater. In the past quarter-century, 1,314 Americans wrongfully incarcerated have been set free, according to the University of Michigan Law School. On the other hand, an argument can be made that, of the 219,000 federal prisoners now serving time, almost all (or at least a majority), have been “over-sentenced.”
It should never have come to this. Perhaps, Congress felt that, in the 1980’s, when federal parole was abolished for the newly-convicted, and crime rates were climbing, that creating harsher sentencing guidelines was the right thing to do. But, then, unfortunately, bureaucratic inertia took over. The imprisoned can’t vote, and politicians only wanted their constituents to see them as “tough on crime.” Prisoner counts increased geometrically, and correctional budgets along with them. Now, we are seeing a backlash; with taxpayers objecting to having to pay the astronomical costs of incarceration.
It seems that drug defendants have suffered the most from over-sentencing – often having “ghost dope” or co-conspirators’ (who they sometimes don’t even know) drugs attributed to them; their sentences often getting blown up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon by a Judge following a well-meaning (but misguided) probation officer’s PSI recommendations. But, even white-collar defendants have been hammered by inflated “loss” amounts calculated by “government arithmetic” and the accompanying inflated sentences for the larger (often fictitious) amounts they are held responsible for stealing.
However, there is a cure for “over-conviction.” It is not an easy process, and success cannot be guaranteed, but where arguments for relief can be credibly made, they should be. Where law enforcement has not “played by the rules,” they must be “called” on it. Make no mistake – many prosecutors believe that those who are arrested deserve to be punished – for something. So they move forward, based on the word of “the ends justify the means” arresting agencies – when the cops may be bending the facts and the rules to get a conviction. Let’s do our part to motivate the courts, the Congress, and the public, to do the right thing by the accused, the convicted and the incarcerated -- by using all legal means available to us. Let’s also insist that the ill, the infirm, and rehabilitated long-term prisoner be released, forthwith; and stop demanding that they keep paying a debt to society that: 1. they may no longer owe, and: 2. that a compassionate society should no longer want to collect.
But we must bang on the door if we want anyone to open it!