Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Justice Reform for Taxpayers

Reading two inconspicuous articles in the California section of today's Los Angeles Times reminded me of the need to reform our justice system in fairness to us taxpayers, while maintaining the current basic civil rights for our citizens and legal alien residents.

In one article, a Superior Court jury in San Diego yesterday found that four male firefighters were sexually harassed while driving a fire truck in a 2007 gay pride parade and were entitled to $34,300 in damages from the city, which apparently plans to appeal. The firefighters had sued the city because they were ordered to drive the truck in the 90 minute parade, even though firefighters in previous gay pride parades had reported being taunted with sexual innuendos. In his arguments to the jury the successful attorney for the firefighters claimed the city "disrespected these men and violated their rights." Understandably, after the lawsuit was filed, the Fire Chief changed department policy and made participation in gay pride parades voluntary.

I have several reactions. There are too many attorneys looking for clients. Too many jurors are not really qualified to serve capably. A case like this should not be decided by a jury, but by a judge, if it should be adjudicated at all. The fire fighters should have been able to deal with the harassment without resorting to lawsuits, especially when they should have known that it was likely going to take place. The gays involved should have behaved better and not doing so probably harmed sympathies for their rights in the community at large. The city should win on an effective appeal. Far too much taxpayer moneys were used, because of how this case was handled, not only for the $34,300, but the probably larger and unnecessary courtroom costs involved.

The other article reported that a San Quentin inmate on death row for murdering a 12 year old girl in 1981 died of natural causes at 65, after spending twenty-two years fighting execution. The girl had been on a camping trip with her mother and a friend in Cleveland National Forest in Orange County. The girl's friend was also shot, but survived. The inmate apparently didn't know the girls at all, and his motive for shooting the girls never clearly emerged in the lengthy trial held originally in 1983.

All inmates, especially those on death row, should, of course, have the right to appeal their sentences. No one can credibly argue that point. However, it's not reasonable and not fair to the taxpayers that a legal appeal process can last more than twenty years. It really should not be necessary and appropriate to last more than five years in most cases and ten years in exceptional cases, without unfairly affecting their civil rights. At 1/1/08 there were 3,309 death row inmates in the U. S., of which 667 were in California, 397 in Florida, and 373 in Texas. It is difficult to come up with accurate figures, but the cost of legal appeals, housing, feeding, guarding and providing medical care to these inmates adds up to a great deal of money, probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. My understanding is that the average time spent on death row is more than 20 years. If the appeals process could be limited to an average of, say, eight or ten years, these very large total costs could no doubt be cut in half, with huge savings for taxpayers.

The highly sensitive subject of capital punishment is another important different, though closely related, issue. Some people favor abolition of capital punishment, others favor retaining capital punishment for the most serious crimes, and still others favor swifter capital punishment for a broader category of crimes. Justification for their respective views vary. The majority of the justifications seem to include concern that some of those scheduled for execution may actually be innocent, which I share, a desire for "justice" for those murdered or otherwise harmed, a perception of deterrence to other prospective criminals, and a desire to save unnecessarily spent money for the taxpayers, which I also share. Certainly all these views have merit and should be respected, though many experts maintain that capital punishment is not really a deterrence to a great many hardened criminals.

In any case, it's obvious that we have material weaknesses with our current system of justice. A comprehensive and serious review of how best to improve it is needed. One of the major objectives of such a review, aside from maintaining basic and reasonable civil rights for the accused and convicted, should be clearly identifying and quantifying how an improved system of justice can appropriately save taxpayers unnecessarily spent moneys.

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