Virtually every American has watched enough TV cop dramas to know about the Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain silent …”) to understand that defendants are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, and to know that our founding fathers believed it better to let 100 guilty people go free than to imprison one innocent person.
Yet the criminal justice system doesn’t always work that way. Too often, I hear from people — and even people who serve on juries — who believe that “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.” It’s far more common for average, law-abiding citizens to think that those people who are entangled by the law must be guilty of something — and that the authorities rarely are mistaken or craven. A variety of local scandals casts doubt on placing such trust in the justice system.
Reforming a complex system — actually, thousands of local, state and federal systems — is no easy task, especially given the outsize influence of the law enforcement lobbies in state capitols. Legislators don’t want to be at odds with their local police chiefs — and they certainly don’t want to be the target of “soft on crime” hit mailers from police unions.
Nevertheless, serious reform can happen, as we saw last year with passage of a new law that limits the ability of police agencies to take private property without first obtaining a conviction through a disreputable practice known as civil asset forfeiture. In that case, concerns about fairness actually trumped fears about losing money.
This year, another fairness-related criminal justice issue is advancing in the Legislature in the form of two identical bills. The issue involves bail reform. The most I’ve thought about bail prior to this debate was from my short walks past the county courthouse, where several neon-signed storefronts offer “bail bonds” at the lowest rates and easiest terms.
Going back to those TV dramas, we know that judges bang…