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Justice system needs fixing

The criminal justice system, or rather I should say the defendant’s justice system, is broken.

We have distorted the system by misdirected thinking – that its purpose is to serve those caught up in it as a result of their choice of bad behavior. Rather, it was designed to protect society by handling cases in a just manner that occur because criminals, those who choose to disobey the laws we institute through our Legislature, are caught and punished. Misdirected thinking has apparently caused some in the system to think more about caring for the bad-behavior people than for the innocent people upon whom the harm has been inflicted.

We spend a lot of money on defendants’ rights to assure they are not wrongfully convicted and, after conviction, to “rehabilitate” them. That money is diverted from providing the safety that could occur if there were enough police to protect us from the criminals in the first place. It also diverts money from having enough prosecutors so cases could be adequately prosecuted and cut down on plea-bargaining. Why wouldn’t we want to first take care of our need for safety before caring for those who do not want to obey our laws? You tell me.

I have often argued that if we properly funded the front end of the system – police, prosecutors and judges – fewer jails and prisons would be needed. Those who chose to test the system by their criminal behavior would know that we were serious and make different choices. At least some would. There would always be those who would not be convinced, or were too dangerous to us and would need to be incarcerated. However, I found in my years in the criminal justice system that people adjust their behavior based on what the system requires of them.

We need to change the attitude of the police. Police agencies have decided to be military units fighting a “war” against crime. The problem with that thinking is that they adopt an “us against them” philosophy that does not investigate and determine something is criminal before they “take control of the suspect.”

The Otto Zehm case is a perfect example of how this training can cause an otherwise “good officer” to conduct himself in an unprofessional manner, and beat someone to the ground rather than asking a few questions. It can apparently cause other “good officers” to continue the beating (because he “did not follow the directions to stop resisting” – a perfectly reasonable reaction for someone who doesn’t know why the police are beating him when he did nothing wrong), hog-tie him, place on him a plastic mask without the oxygen designed to flow through a tube into a hole in the mask, put knees in his back to hold him face-down on the floor, and watch him stop breathing before trying to resuscitate him. As a result he later died.

Now that all the facts are known in this case, has the agency that conducted the cross-investigation factored in this additional evidence surrounding the situation? Will its officers be recommending charges against the officers whose reckless conduct is responsible for Otto’s death, a first-degree manslaughter? Will the officers who apparently lied to the federal grand jury be charged and convicted? If not, why not? I thought we pretend that it is “Equal justice under the law.” Some think officers should be held to a higher standard, but at least they should be held to the same standard.

The final question is what are we going to do about it? Being complacent and not speaking up, not demanding satisfactory solutions from our elected officials, has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. To paraphrase: All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men and women to do nothing.

Don Brockett is a former Spokane County prosecuting attorney.


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