Our Progressive Vision: The most fundamental job of government is to protect its citizens from crime. A progressive government focuses on strategies that make us safer and serious felonies deserve serious punishment. But there is a great deal that can be done to prevent crime while also ensuring justice: (1) reform police procedures, including interrogations and use of force, that lead authorities toward the wrong suspects; (2) reform judicial procedures that hurt the innocent, thereby helping the guilty; (3) reform prison procedures that increase recidivism; and (4) reform criminal laws to prevent the commission of crimes.
With the advent of DNA evidence, it has become clear that many innocent people have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Part of the problem is old-fashioned police procedures—an overconfidence in unreliable eyewitnesses and an emphasis on profiling and random-but-targeted stops. Progressive states and localities must adopt fairer and more accurate procedures. The most common element in convictions overturned by DNA evidence has been eyewitness misidentification. This is why police need to reform procedures for lineup identifications. In addition, they should require electronic recording of all interrogations and attach cameras to police cars and uniforms. Law enforcement should have clear rules against racial profiling and military weaponry, as well as limiting the use of force.
Tough court procedures don’t necessarily make law-abiding citizens any safer, and can in fact have the opposite effect. A progressive government pursues bail reform, sentencing reform and juvenile justice reform to make it less likely that minor offenders turn into hardened criminals. Similarly, expungement of minor arrest or conviction records can also help prevent recidivism.
The U.S. prison population has exploded in the past few decades, from about 300,000 prisoners in 1980 to more than 1.5 million today. Another 750,000 are in local jails or juvenile detention. Thirty-one states employ private prisons, presumably on the theory that they’re cheaper, but there is no legitimate evidence to prove this claim. At the same time, private prisons seek healthier prisoners because they are less expensive to house, and shy away from providing education and training programs in order to maximize profits. Prison privatization should be banned, or, if that’s not possible, more strictly regulated.
Smarter criminal laws
The 1980s and 1990s “War on Drugs” took much discretion away from judges and enormously increased the length of sentences. Yet, a growing body of research proves that treatment, rather than incarceration, is the most effective tactic to fight drug abuse. Diverting nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs reduces recidivism and saves money. Similarly, mandatory minimum sentences should be relaxed so that judges can deliver real justice based on the actual circumstances of each case. While these “get tough” measures have been ineffective, real danger has come from the nearly unchecked proliferation of guns. Every single day, dozens of Americans are murdered, hundreds are shot, and nearly one thousand are robbed or assaulted with a gun. It’s just common sense that every state should require a background check for all gun sales, preferably including fingerprinting and safety training as well.
Electronic recording of interrogations
Every year, hundreds of innocent Americans are convicted of crimes because of false confessions. Many more are arrested because of false confessions and later the charges are dropped. There are many reasons why innocent people “confess,” ranging from exhaustion to mental illness. Psychologists report that standard police interrogation tactics regularly elicit false confessions from the mentally disabled, mentally ill, juveniles and those who suffer from alcohol or drug problems. Electronic recording of interrogations helps to protect the innocent and convict the guilty. Ten states and many cities and counties now require electronic recording of interrogations. In fact, then-State Senator Barack Obama sponsored the first state law requiring electronic recording of interrogations in 2003.
Cameras on police cars or uniforms
Fatal police shootings in cities across the country have prompted new calls for police to monitor themselves with video cameras. The use of police cruiser-mounted cameras is becoming widespread, and there are also “body cameras” which attach to officers’ uniform lapels. The idea behind this technology is that both police officers and criminal suspects are less likely to misbehave if they know they’re being recorded. In a study by Cambridge University, police in the city of Rialto, California saw an 89 percent decline in the number of complaints against officers during a yearlong test use of body cameras. The number of times police used force against suspects also declined.
Ban stun cuffs
A stun cuff is a small box strapped to a prisoner (usually at the ankle) which, when police press a remote controlled trigger, emits a 50,000-volt shock that immobilizes the wearer. This device is good for little more than torture as prisoners can already be fully controlled with the use of handcuffs and leg irons. Stun cuffs should be banned.
Demilitarize the police
More than 8,000 local police forces, including at least 117 college police agencies, have received more than $5 billion in military equipment from the federal government under the “1033 Program.” Local police now routinely use automatic weapons and heavily armored military vehicles, camouflage combat fatigues, flash-bang grenades and night-vision rifle scopes. State and local governments should curtail militarization. To do this, every official should ask their own law enforcement agencies whether they own or have ordered military equipment. If so, they should find out how much the storage and maintenance costs are, what police do with the equipment, and whether there is a training program to make sure those military weapons and accessories are not misused. Jurisdictions should ban such weaponry or at least set up strict procedures to ensure proper oversight for the acquisition and possession of military equipment.
Many law enforcement agencies have abused the civil asset forfeiture process, which has allowed police to seize, and too often keep or sell, property they claim was involved in a crime. Often property owners are not even arrested, much less convicted, of a crime, but their cash, vehicles and other property are seized and never returned. The Institute for Justice model law eliminates civil forfeiture and replaces it with criminal forfeiture, which limits police authority to keep property to situations where assets were derived directly from or used in crime and a criminal conviction occurs.