In the wake of serious questions about guilt and innocence on Death Row in Illinois and other states, the argument of whether or not there should be a death penalty in this country has begun to spill all over the media and into the U.S. Presidential election. With DNA tests raising serious doubts about whether or not condemned killers were even at the scene of numerous murders, people are asking whether or not the "system" is fair when it condemns convicted murderers to death.
Like so many other public discussions in this country, the pundits fail to even ask the proper questions, let alone look anywhere in places where answers might be found. Until people publicly raise the point that the fingerprints of statism are all over these latest travesties of justice (no DNA tests needed here), there will be no solutions, only more statist hot air.
While it is no means certain that negative DNA results always "prove" innocence, it is safe to say that wrongly convicted people in this country rot on death rows in many states. Many more innocents have disappeared into the bowels of state and federal prisons with almost no hope of release. Still others have been exonerated, but only after extraordinary efforts by individuals who have battled officers of the state at every step. The United States, despite having less than five percent of the world’s population, incarcerates more people (approximately two million) than any other nation on earth.
Americans are a contradictory people. They understand that the government Postal Service offers inferior service to private mail delivery and Americans have long known the failures of their public school systems. Yet, despite our discoveries, they continue to insist that government is the most fair and efficient arbiter of justice. That a government-run system of justice dispenses massive amounts of injustice should shock no one.
To examine why this is so, we first must examine the role government has in meting justice. According to our laws, government is supposed to be the entity that both pursues justice on behalf of those who have been harmed and also protects the rights of the accused. These obviously are mutually exclusive roles. We cannot expect those in government to prosecute accused criminals and then at the same time protect the rights of those who are being prosecuted. One role will always overshadow the other.
The second problem is that while the state claims to represent the victims of crime, it actually removes the victims from the scene altogether. When government charges someone with a crime, it is as either State of _____ vs. John Doe or U.S. vs. John Doe. Crime victims who claim they have been overlooked or forgotten are correct; in fact, they no longer matter once the state steps into the fray.
The third problem with state-dispensed justice is that the government players often have their own agendas. Most prosecutors have been elected to their positions and are often ambitious people who have their sights on much higher offices. (Bill Clinton’s political career began as a prosecutor in Arkansas.) The best way for a prosecutor to find his or her way to a more lucrative political career is to gain a conviction in a high-profile crime of violence or murder, which creates numerous incentives for prosecutors to cut corners in presenting evidence to juries.
Fourth, the state has only three methods of punishment, the death penalty, incarceration, or levying of fines. Most people found guilty either go to prison or are placed on probation. The only difference in the meting out of punishment is the length of the sentence.
These things hardly create an atmosphere for administering any real justice. By the end of the process, victims are often worse off than before, prosecutors and judges are likely to have violated the constitutional rights of the accused, and all too often juries composed of conscripts have rendered the wrong verdicts.
Nor can one expect the state to reform its own broken justice system. Although Congress and state legislatures have passed numerous "victims’ rights" laws and the courts are supposed to safeguard the constitutional rights of people accused of crimes, as long as the present system of incentives remains in place, in the end the results will be as unsatisfactory as before.
The problems that plague the systems of justice in this country are the same problems that trouble all socialist entities. A lack of a system of economic calculation means that the dispositions of cases are decided upon political merits, rather than how they might have affected the victims. And because the rewards are mainly political, cases are tried and decided on the basis of the political benefits to the prosecution and the judges. The rights of the victims and of the defendants usually are pushed aside.
For example, assume that John Doe breaks into my house and steals some expensive items. Further assume that police find him and recover some of my things. While Doe has violated my property, I no recourse in seeking justice other than to hope that the players in the justice monopoly seek to have him punished. In most cases such as this, the DAs office usually seeks a plea bargain. (Like most people who fall into the legal system, Doe is guilty as charged.)
The judge either sentences Doe to jail or allows him to remain free as long as he does not commit any other crimes. Doe’s debt is not to me, however, but rather to the state and when the government says it is satisfied, Doe is free of any more problems as long as he does not offend the authorities. The only compensation I am likely to receive is that "warm and fuzzy" feeling I am supposed to experience when Doe receives his punishment. (The judge may allow me to testify at Doe’s sentencing to tell him of the pain I received at the hands of the criminal, but even then I have no real part in his punishment.)
It does not take a genius to see that by claiming it has been the real victim of crime rather than the actual person who was injured, the state will be incapable of rendering justice in its truest sense. The real beneficiaries of this system are its players, not the people who are supposed to be helped.
Another peril of statist justice is that the authorities will tend to emphasize whatever the latest fad may be. For example, "hate crimes" are in, which means that prosecutors will seek to unearth crimes which they say are the result of the bigotry of a white male heterosexual toward someone who is not in that classification. Another popular category of crime is violation of drug laws. Police departments have an added bonus in going after drug offenders because of the possibility of property seizures, a situation that creates a moral hazard of its own.
Perhaps one of the most blatant examples of political prosecution in the last two decades has been the railroading of dozens of innocent people to jail for incidents of sexual molestation of children that never took place. From Manhattan Beach, California, to Edenton, North Carolina, to Wenatchee, Washington, vengeful prosecutors convinced juries that individuals had committed the most atrocious acts of sex with children — despite the fact that there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever except for stories government social workers had tricked out of young children.
(In the Edenton case, all of the private psychiatrists who interviewed children declared no evidence of sexual abuse, while all of the state social workers claimed to have found abuse. The state’s response was to threaten to charge the parents who took their children to private psychiatrists with sexual abuse. Janet Reno, when she was the district attorney in Miami, Florida, was one of the first prosecutors to engage in this marathon of injustice. She railroaded Grant Snowden into prison with a life sentence. The Florida Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction after the man had rotten in prison for more than a decade.)
In every one of these seemingly spectacular cases, it was clear from the beginning that the stories social workers had conjured out of these impressionable children were demonstrably false. Yet prosecutors saw the political benefits of "believing the children" and acted accordingly. The damage they inflicted in all quarters of their communities was immense, but almost all of those prosecutors were able to parlay their courtroom successes into higher offices.
The focus of this article has been to point out why government justice is no justice at all. Libertarian scholars such as Murray N. Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Walter Block, and others have helped outline private alternatives to the state monopoly. My purpose has been to demonstrate that a state run system of justice will always result in the fiascoes of death row in Illinois and elsewhere. It is time to explore other avenues to find solutions.
William L. Anderson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of economics at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.