Mar 30, 2009

A National Commission on Criminal Justice

In the widely acclaimed film ...And Justice For All criminal defense lawyer Arthur Kirkland (played by Al Pacino) famously screams to a jury that "this whole system is out of order."

What was a parody three decades ago has become today's sad truth. The U.S. criminal justice system is broken.  Prisons are overcrowded and dangerous to prisoners and prison personnel alike.  Judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers have so many cases that as Lenny Bruce said, "In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls."  Crime labs spew out questionable forensic test results and are too under-funded to keep up with their work. Many prisoners are mentally ill or addicted to drugs and could be treated more cheaply and humanely in community-based rehabilitation centers.

A new legislative proposal provides some basis for hoping that the criminal justice system has hit rock bottom and may be ready to be pushed onto the road to recovery.  U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has proposed legislation called The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.  If passed, the law will create a blue ribbon commission charged with reinventing the criminal justice system.  If the system is to be improved, many perceptions will need to be changed and many entrenched interests will need to cede power.  But what the heck -- as long as we're trying to repair our banking system, auto industry, and many other dysfunctional (yet crucial) institutions, we might as well toss the criminal justice system into the mix.