Notes of a Frustrated Academic


            I can be best described as a frustrated academic.  My colleagues and I have been doing research on these issues for years, yet are mostly ignored.  We report on the failures of simplistic programs like Scared Straight, DARE, Just Say No, mandatory sentencing, truth in sentencing, and other repressive laws, all of which have failed to reduce crime, as our research makes clear.  Yet they keep funding such programs and passing such legislation.  I am reminded of a famous comment by Ben Franklin that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”


As just one example take the drug war.  I have often argued that “nothing succeeds like failure” and the drug war is one among many examples.  Mike Gray, author of Drug Crazy (one of the best books on the drug war) expresses my sentiments exactly when he writes that: “Not only has America nothing to show for this monumental effort, but the failed effort has clearly made everything worse. After blowing hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, the drugs on the street today are stronger, cheaper, more pure, and more widely available than at any time in history…You can buy it [drugs] in the school yard, in the alley, and you can buy it in small Indiana farm towns that just a few years ago had never even heard of the stuff.” Need I mention of the recently defeated Question 7 here in Nevada? 


As if this is not bad enough, I often think of all the unjust sentences handed down.  What other country – save Third World countries ruled by dictators – will you find harsher sentences?  Where else will you find thousands of petty offenders receiving what amounts to life sentences?  Where else will you find prosecutors, looking ahead to re-election, seeking the most outrageous sentences just to show the voting public how “tough on crime” he is?


While you are reading this, there are thousands of people behind bars that should not be there. (Yes, of course, there are many that certainly should be there.)  During the past year and a half I have become intimately familiar of one gross case of injustice.  A young man (who grew up in Las Vegas) got involved with a criminal organization in the Los Angeles area about 20 years ago.  He was, admittedly, somewhat of a “hood” and did some crimes he now regrets.  However, his last offense involved robbery and kidnapping (along with a few other members of this “mob”) where no one was killed.  The DA offered him a deal which would involve a big reduction of his sentence, but only if he offered information about the rest of this “mob.”  In other words, the DA wanted him to be a “snitch.” He refused the deal (for obvious reasons).  The DA “threw the book at him” and gave him two 20 year sentences to run consecutively (this is where you serve the first sentence and when you are done with that you start serving the next, rather than the more common practice of serving them concurrently – two sentences combined into one – in this case he would have served 15 years, less good time credits). 


Today this man is in his 40s and has already served more time than the average convicted murderer (yes, I checked this through the Bureau of Justice Statistics).  He has become an exemplary prisoner (as I have learned through prison officials). He now regrets his past, has taken responsibility and has made amends. His family is trying to get the governor of California to grant a commutation of his sentence.  His parents are in their sixties; one has cancer.  They may not live long enough to see him set free.  Yes, he did some bad things and harmed some people, but all I can say is: when is enough, enough?


Another example is provided in John Grisham’s latest book, The Innocent Man.  Grisham is most famous for his novels about lawyers (e.g., The Firm) but this is his first venture into non-fiction and it is as good as any of his books.  Read this book and see for yourself.


These are the kinds of cases that really piss me off.  They are also part of the reason why I continue to emphasize the negative aspects of our system of justice. 


© 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.