Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Is there harassment going on?

We understand from some reliable sources that some members of the Arizona legislature feel as if they are being harassed and intimated by a representative of the Maricopa County Attorneys Office, an office that opposes an effort to reform the draconian state laws applying to "sex offenders" under the age of 18.

These laws received a great deal of attention when the story broke of the prosecution of a 16 year old student who faced a sentence of 90 years in jail. The Matt Bandy case got lots of people upset. Many never realized how a few photos could send a person to prison for life.

Apparently there is a great deal of concern over this legislation from a certain official in Maricopa County who is apparently worried that the reforms will cut the rug out of from under some cases built on flimsy evidence and that it will make it harder for him maintain the high conviction rate he uses in his regular PR efforts.

Excessive sentencing works to the benefit of the prosecutor. If someone is facing 150 years in prison and the county attorney offers them 5 years in jail, probation for 5 years and registering as a sex offender for life even the innocent are very likely to plead guilty. High conviction rates often mean high false conviction rates especially if the person is terrified by the outlandish penalites he or she may face if found guilty.

In the Matt Bandy case prosecutors from the offices of Andrew Thomas charged the teen with offenses that would have put him in prison for life. To a 16-year-old child that is terribly frightening. But that prospect facing him the next offer from Thomas' office looked good. Matt had to plead guilty to the horrible crime of showing a Playboy magazine to three school friends. He would be on probation, not go to prison, but the prosecutors insisted he had to register as sex offender! Faced with such extreme choices he had no choice but to accept the offer. The judge eventually threw out the sex offender status.

Extreme sentencing encourages innocent people to plead guilty. It does not serve justice! In Texas Christopher Ochoa confessed to murder but he didn't kill anyone. Police convinced him that they were likely to get a conviction because he was Hispanic. If he confessed they wouldn't ask for the death penalty in his case. Faced with prison for life or the prospect of being found guilty and executed he confessed to a crime he did not commit. He was later fully exonerated.

The entire sentencing structure in the United States has become more and more authoritarian. And while conservatives applaud tougher laws every time they are introduced they don't see the incentives involved in such laws. These laws give prosecutors immense power over all defendants, guilty and innocent alike. (Of course prosecutors like to pretend they prosecute the only the guilty but only morons believe prosecutors.) Through the use of plea bargains they can basically coerce innocent people into coping a guilty plea in order to have the guarantee of avoiding a much worse fate. "Tough" prosecutors then brag about a high conviction rate without telling people that it is achieved at the expense of incarcerating innocent people.

It is no wonder that the prospect of even some modest changes in this law has a certain county attorney in Arizona unhappy. Phoenix media take note -- don't you think you should be investigating whether this is actually happening or not. I'd love to pursue this myself but I'm not living in the US and that limits my ability to investigate further. But I know that a lot of Arizonans read this blog so I hope they alert media friends to the story and we find out what is going on.

And some final advice to Mr. Thomas and crew. I know this case embarrassed you. Face it, you made a mistake. But don't be stupid. The media and the public has the attention span of a flea. And just as the matter was dying out Rachel Alexander went and resurrected it. Most people look at this case and see major problems and that doesn't benefit you one bit. I would think the last thing you'd want is for people to keep hearing about the case. The more you do regarding this the worse you look. Now what Alexander wrote may play well with some Far Right websites but that little world is not the universe and those people were already on your side so there is zero gain. The Left is already against you so you can ignore them politically. But the vast middle is where careers are made or broken. And this case does not play well with them so the more you keep it going the more you lose. Let Matt Bandy get on with his life and you get on with your quest for power. That way each of you can pursue the most important thing to you.

Now that advice ought to disappoint some of my readers so I will explain. All in all if Thomas pursues this case in the media it will harm him and his efforts will make law reform more likely. I know that. And I know that would mean a lower likelihood that similar cases will happen again. But I can't stop thinking about what this case must be doing to Matt. And I want it to stop for him. The laws need to be changed and I hope my friends in Arizona work to do that. But I don't want to see Matt made into a martyr for a cause involuntarily. On the other hand I'm not even sure Thomas is smart enough to take he advice seriously.

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