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Those Damn Liberal Prosecutors

Posted by Rick · September 23rd, 2003 · 5 Comments

Well, okay, I know how strange it sounds to talk about “those damn liberal prosecutors.” You wouldn’t really think prosecutors are the most liberal-minded people in the world—unless you happen to be John Ashcroft.

The New York Times notes that Ashcroft—who has tried to create a McCarthyesque atmosphere for judges who he thinks are too lenient—is now going after prosecutors—those crazed, leftist, lenient crime-mongers. After noting that he made it tougher for them to enter into plea bargains and required them to go for “the most serious charges possible in almost all cases,” the Times states:

The move also effectively expands to the entire gamut of federal crimes the attorney general’s tough stance on the death penalty, which he has sought in numerous cases over the objections of federal prosecutors. – “Ashcroft Limiting Prosecutors’ Use of Plea Bargains,” The New York Times, September 22, 2003 (emphasis mine).

Kill ’em all! Uh, not the prosecutors; we can’t actually kill the crazed, leftist, lenient, crime-mongering prosecutors, but at least let’s kill all the prisoners.

It’s worth remembering that several Supreme Court Justices have recently become increasingly vocal about their own views on sentencing guidelines and they are doing this because they totally disagree with what Ashcroft is doing. Justice Kennedy, known as one of the most conservative Supreme Court Justices, has stated

Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long. – “Supreme Court justice urges shorter sentences,” The Washington Times, August 10, 2003 (emphasis mine).

Some of the other staunchly conservative judges (besides Justice Kennedy, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas are in this group) have also spoken out on Ashcroft’s stringency. For example, The Miami Herald reported,

In a May 5 speech, Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said that compiling such a list “could amount to an unwarranted and ill-considered effort to intimidate judges in the performance of their judicial duties.” Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative Supreme Court justice and Reagan appointee, went further. He asked members of the American Bar Association to fight for a repeal of minimum-mandatory sentences. “I can accept neither the wisdom, the justice nor the necessity of mandatory minimums,” he told the national meeting of the ABA. “In all too many cases, they are unjust.” – “Judicial Intimidation: Justice wants lists of ‘lenient’ judges,” The Miami Herald, August 13, 2003. (Emphasis mine.)

Of course, none of this should really come as a surprise. Even before he was President,

Governor Bush’s complacency with the high number of executions in Texas, his refusal to acknowledge the extensively documented lack of adequate legal representation for capital defendants in Texas, and his refusal to oppose the execution of even mentally handicapped defendants or youthful offenders generated widespread media attention and criticism. – “World Report 2001: United States,” Human Rights Watch.

Long before this official, explicit hardening of the judicial system, the United States had already “become the leading prison country among civilized nations,” imprisoning “five to eight times more citizens per capita than Western European countries.” (Elaine Cassel, “THE PRISONIZATION OF AMERICA AS A SHAMEFUL SOCIAL PROBLEM: A Review of Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation,” FindLaw’s Book Reviews, April 5, 2002.) In fact,

The American prison population increased 500 percent between 1970 and 2000, doubling in the last decade of the century. Ibid, emphasis mine.

[Note to LadyLawyer at aol.com: Even though Cassel mistakenly identifies Mike Reynolds as a Fresno District Attorney, possibly destroying her credibility on anything she’s ever written, thought, considered or otherwise been connected with in some way, her statistics appear to hold. Consider these Bureau of Justice Statistics on National Prison Population Growth, for example, which show that from 1980 to 1994—a much shorter period than noted above—total prison populations increased by 195.6%, with a 259.6% increase in federal prisons, 209.0% in state prisons and 165.4% in local jails. (A footnote indicates that state and federal inmate counts exclude some individuals.) Furthermore, “[d]uring the year preceding June 30, 1995, prison populations increased by at least 10 per cent in 23 states. Texas reported the largest growth (nearly 27%), followed by West Virginia (26%) and North Carolina (18%). Prison populations declined in the District of Columbia (down 5.0%), Alaska (3.1%), Arkansas (1.0%) and South Carolina (0.8%).” – “National Prison Population Growth: A BJS Report,” Alaska Justice Forum 12(4), Winter 1996.]

An ABC News report from April 20, 2003 noted that the United States “incarceration rate may top Russia as highest in [the] world.” (“U.S. Prison Population Rising: Incarceration Rate May Top Russia as Highest in World,” ABCNews.com, April 20, 2003; emphasis mine.) And we don’t even have the near-open warfare of some of these Western European countries (think “Irish Republican Army,” for one) which could reasonably result in higher arrests, detentions and imprisonments. Would it surprise you to know that there are more prisoners in the United States than farmers? (Tracy Huling, “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America,” from Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, Editors. The New Press, 2002.)

Small surprise then that Bush selected Ashcroft to be his Attorney General. Perhaps what he liked best about him was his comment defending his far-right views: “There are two things you find in the middle of the road,” Ashcroft said, “a moderate and a dead skunk.” Perhaps what Bush liked best was that in 2000, Ashcroft obtained a 100% approval rating from the Christian Coalition while environmentalist and women’s groups gave him a whopping…zero. (“Profile: John Ashcroft,” BBC News, January 16, 2001. But if you think Ashcroft is scary, his wife calls him “reasoned and flexible”! Perhaps we should thank goodness that folks like Ashcroft and Bush keep their wives under tight wraps!) It didn’t hurt that Ashcroft, like George Bush, had the support of big business; Ashcroft’s 2000 race to keep his senate seat received significant funding from Enron. And when Bush was looking, it also didn’t hurt that Ashcroft had recently become available by losing his senate seat to a dead man. But more likely, Bush liked the fact that Ashcroft is anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-civil-liberties, anti-minority with a reputation of being extremely tough on crime.

There are others like Ashcroft, who think we need to “get tougher” on crime, to imprison more people. Yet there are several problems with this, not the least of which is the staggering cost of keeping over two million Americans in prison each year. That’s two million you have to feed, you have to clothe, you have to protect against the climate (e.g., heating and cooling bills). You think your home electric bills have been high since deregulation? Imagine what it costs to maintain a prison! And the building of prisons is currently a “growth industry” in rural America. (Huling, supra.)

Texas, of course, prefers to kill its prisoners, but even there 49—forty-nine—new prisons were built in the 1990s. “[O]ne of every five new rural prisons in the 1990s opened in Texas.” (Huling, supra.)

The economic consequences of this increased building of prisons are not limited to the cost to taxpayers for the move toward permanently putting people in pens. Huling also notes that prisons tend to alter (and ruin) economies when placed into rural areas. In Tehachapi, California, for example, there is not one, but two, prisons. When rural areas build prisons, they have to hire people from outside their communities. Apparently, not many highly trained corrections officers and prison administrators are natively found in rural areas. Chain stores like Walmart and McDonald’s become interested in these communities with their enlarged populations of prison guards and their families. After Tehachapi built prisons and the chains moved in, 741 locally-owned businesses failed in the space of a decade. To diverge from the topic temporarily, this also has a negative impact on the tax-base for those communities and, whereas locally-owned companies tend to reinvest in the local economy, chains do not. But that’s another story. (For more on the economic impact on rural communities, which is significant and involves everything from housing to jobs—low-wage prison workers displace low-wage earners within the community—read Huling’s article; for more on the societal costs of incarceration in general, check out this MotherJones.com Special Report.)

Besides the cost of facilities, there are the salaries of specially-trained personnel. Prisons employ a lot of people. Prisons in Ionia, Michigan—which in 2002 built its sixth prison—house 5,094 prisoners and employ 1,584 workers! So now, in addition to feeding, clothing, warming and otherwise (ware)housing two million prisoners, you—your tax dollars—have to feed the staff to maintain these prisons. So now what do you think about those numbers?

If these numbers hold throughout the prison systems scattered across the United States, that’s one worker for every three prisoners! (The President has promised to provide more jobs. Perhaps that’s part of Ashcroft’s motivation.) And that doesn’t even count those government jobs—your tax dollars—that exist because of prisons, but which don’t actually exist at prisons. But if we need that many prisons, we need that many prisons, right?

It becomes easier to understand why we can’t afford to build more schools, hire more teachers or make it possible for all school children to have their own school books, so they can take them home at night and study rather than share a book with their classmates. At the same time the United States was feverishly building new prisons, Youth Outlook published a story by a student which began “It’s the third week of school, you need to study, but you still don’t have a textbook…” which noted that even those students who did have books had “texts that are barely legible due to graffiti and missing pages.” Adrian Dedomenico, “The Real Textbook Scandal—Not Enough to Go Around,” Youth Outlook, October 22, 1997.) Welcome to high school in the small, poor town of San Francisco. In 2001, a six-month investigation by the online version of Mother Jones magazine published these discouraging statistics:

Rank State % Increase in Prison Spending % increase in Higher Ed Spending
1 Ohio 491% 80%
2 Pennsylvania 452% 86%
3 Texas 401% 37%
4 Michigan 299% 33%
5 New Jersey 295% 91%
6 Oregon 282% 21%
7 Connecticut 273% 47%
8 Utah 259% 22%
9 Kansas 247% 23%
10 Wisconsin 246% 16%

     – “Prison Spending Growing Six Times Faster than Higher Education Spending,” Mother Jones (online), July 11, 2001.

At the same time, they noted

While states have tripled per capita spending on prisons in that time [1980-2001], they have increased funds to public colleges and universities by less than a third.Ibid.

The irony of it is that many of the people who end up in prisons end up there because they are uneducated. As Robert Moore, Hopkins County (Kentucky) Attorney, notes, “Education is the single most important predictor of criminality.” This is true not only for first-time offenders, but also as pertains to recidivism (relapse into criminal behavior). A 1998 study done in California by the Little Hoover Commission found that prison education programs in four states helped lower the rate of recidivism. (Perry Kenny, President of the California State Employees Association, “Education as crime prevention…,” from the Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2000.) When you realize that California spends over $21,000 per convict per year just to keep them in prison, you see how this ties right back in to the emphasized portion of Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s New York Times quote above about wasted resources. Do you remember whose money that is? (Hint: Check your paycheck stub to see if you pay state taxes.)

Considering all the above, Ashcroft’s activities—driven and endorsed by the Bush Administration—just don’t make much sense. We, the people, need to tell our government that we are tired of spending all our hard-earned money making war on everyone from Afghanis to Iraqis to our own judges to our own prosecutors to ourselves and, perhaps most importantly of all, to our children. Not only is it expensive, but you really cannot solve every problem by either locking up or blowing up everyone. It’s time our government began to consider the costs—to the economy, to our society and to our standing in the world—of their actions.

What we need are a few more intelligent and capable prosecutors and the courage to let them alone.

Special thanks to my wife, Denise Chaffee, for bringing
some of the links used in this article to my attention.

Categories: Law and Legal Issues


5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Stephen Malm // Sep 23, 2003 at 5:11 pm

    It’s really bad form, I confess, but I haven’t read through your post well-enough to be sure you haven’t included a link to this article just in. Before I head off to this meeting, I’m offering you the below slant on Death Penalty costs which I’m sure we can agree is relevant to the issue and mentality that drives this thinking:

    CME Folks,

    Here is a great article on how the cost of the death penalty affects local jurisdictions. As we continue to work in various cities and counties it is important to explain what our communities are loosing by continuing to pursue the death penalty instead of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOPP), such as teachers, schools, job training centers, drug rehab centers and police officers. You can also remind them that over 2700 people have been sentenced to the LWOPP in California and only two men have ever been released, and they were both found to be innocent.

    The areas that we are currently working in include; Los Angeles(City), San Diego (city), Santa Barbara (County), Richmond (City), Sacramento (City), San Mateo (county), and Los Gatos (City). If you aren’t already involved in one of these efforts but would like to find out more, please let me know.


    Counties stagger under costs of death-penalty cases
    Idaho Statesman
    September 19, 2003

    IDAHO FALLS -Despite some financial assistance from a fund supported by Idaho counties, local officials say prosecuting death-penalty cases imposes a significant economic burden,
    especially on small counties. And the official heading the committee overseeing that Capital Crimes Defense Fund says this month*s federal appellate court ruling that essentially overturns all existing state death sentences only adds to the cost.

    Officials at this week’s annual Idaho Association of Counties convention agreed that cost cannot dictate whether a prosecutor seeks the death penalty in a murder case. But they conceded that in many instances that decision would force them to curtail other
    services to residents.

    Cassia County Commissioner Paul Christensen said that on top of the millions of dollars already spent to secure death-penalty sentences, it will cost an estimated $200,000 each to pursue reimposition of the death penalty in cases affected by the federal court ruling. ‘I think people need to realize the impact it has on our state taxpayers,”Christensen said.

    Of the 21 convicted murderers on death row, 17 would be directly affected by the appellate court ruling. Three still are under state court review and likely would be overturned to comply with the
    federal court, and three are awaiting resentencing.

    Dale Carter Shackelford, 41, who was ordered executed for the 1999 slayings of his ex-wife and her boyfriend near Moscow, is among those awaiting state review. His case already has cost
    Latah County $700,000 and the state $450,000, and County Clerk Susan Petersen said even with help from the statewide fund the case siphoned cash from other programs.

    Christensen said it costs Idaho taxpayers about $1 million to imprison somebody for life. A death-penalty case, he said, may cost five times that.

    Lemhi County Commissioner Robert Cope doubts his county of 7,700 could afford to prosecute a death-penalty case even with financial help from the state.

    And Lewis County Clerk Cathy Larson said her county of 3,700 had to borrow money in 1990 when it prosecuted and condemned George Junior Porter, 46, of killing his girlfriend a year earlier.

    In 1989 when the death sentence of Jamie Dean Charboneau was overturned on a technical point after Jerome County had spent an estimated $400,000 pursuing his execution, officials
    settled for life in prison without possibility of parole.

    Forty-three of the 44 counties now participate in the defense fund, but it pays just a portion of the cost of capital murder cases.
    Idaho has had only one execution in the past 45 years, and double-murderer Keith Eugene Wells dropped all his appeals and demanded to be put to death in 1994.

    Four of the state’s condemned murderers have been on death row for more than 20 years. At the same time, one condemned man was exonerated by DNA evidence and released after nearly 18
    years and two others were released under plea agreements.

    But Christensen refused to speculate on the legitimacy of the death sentence in Idaho’s criminal justice scheme. “That’s the decision
    the citizens of Idaho have to make,”Christensen said.


    Stefanie L. Faucher
    Program Director

    Death Penalty Focus
    870 Market St. Ste. 859
    San Francisco, CA 94102
    Tel. 415-243-0143
    Fax 415-243-0994

  • 2 joe // Sep 24, 2003 at 8:22 am

    How ironic, that Massachusetts, known as one of the most liberal and Democratic states in the nation, is itself considering reinstating the death penalty.

    The wrinkle here is that the same science used to free an innocent man would be used to prove guilt, but to an higher standard than ‘reasonable doubt’. Do we really trust in science this much?

    Also, the death penalty would be reserved for particular crimes and crimes against those in law enforcement and the judicial system.


  • 3 joe // Sep 24, 2003 at 8:56 am

    This link is off topic but certainly falls into one of your passionate causes…..it’s getting scarier out there…..


  • 4 joe // Sep 24, 2003 at 9:05 am

    This link is on topic, from the California Public Defenders Association ……..


  • 5 Stephen Malm // Sep 24, 2003 at 5:47 pm

    Responding to Joe’s post, it always amazes me when law enforcement implies their lives, to use the standard, are more important than ours… It seems to me akin to voting yourself a pay raise while a member of congress. 🙂

    One small cut from Joe’s link: “Governor Mitt Romney said yesterday he is confident that a commission he has created can develop a death penalty statute that will use the latest forensic science and technology to guarantee that only the guilty will be executed.” So telling, isn’t it, than rather than using science to seek out the root causes of predatory violence, we direct its focus toward more violence, justifying perpetuating an archaic sense of “justice.”

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