Fifteen years ago when I was elected district attorney of Lawrence County, Pa., I had just turned 35 and knew everything there was to know about seeking justice, protecting the public and locking away bad guys.
Today, things are not so obvious. Two terms as district attorney, six years on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and two years at the University of Pennsylvania have taught me that there is a story behind every crime, every new law, every court decision and every piece of academic research.
Each week I hope to share those stories with you along with the insight that comes with more than 25 years as a criminal justice practitioner.
There are no easy answers and, at times, there is no single answer, but the issues of crime and punishment are significant enough to merit critical exploration and objective explanations.
The U.S. incarcerates more people for longer periods of time than any other nation on earth. There are 2.3 million men and women in prisons nationwide, with one in 32 American adults under some sort of correctional supervision.
Today, about 17 states are involved in justice reinvestment strategies. States as diverse as Kansas, West Virginia and Connecticut have joined with the Council of State Governments to map out individualized strategies to reduce the number of people in state prison. The savings will be distributed for initiatives in policing, drug treatment and community supervision.
These ideas were born out of necessity not enlightenment. Policymakers have come to the realization that mass incarceration is a drain on state budgets.
Finances are also driving the death penalty debate. Capital punishment is lawful in 33 states—five fewer than just a few years ago. State-sponsored death has long been attacked as brutal and unfairly administered. Today, the death penalty is attacked as being too costly.
Opponents of the death penalty point to endless and costly appeals; the increased expense of housing offenders on death row; and the financial hardship of defending challenges to every facet of execution including the origin of the execution drugs, the contents of the final meal, and even the obesity of the condemned.
The death penalty is also under scrutiny for a series of recent DNA exonerations.
According to the Innocence Project, there have been 18 men freed from death row as a result of DNA analysis. Jurors are much less likely to sentence a killer to death if they believe innocent men have been sent to their death. Last year marked the second lowest number of death sentences since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
The death penalty is not the only staple of the criminal justice system that has taken a hit as a result of DNA.
DNA has also uncovered wrongful convictions that were originally based on bite mark analysis; hair and fiber analysis; handwriting and even fingerprint analysis. Eyewitness identification, often the only evidence available to police, is being aggressively challenged.
Some experts suggest that such evidence is prone to error. Poor viewing conditions, limited time and fear all play a role in possible misidentification.
Regardless of your opinion of the criminal justice system, crime will continue. For every person on death row, there are one or more victims of murder. For every eyewitness identification there is a corresponding crime. For every trial, regardless of evidence, there is a victim who has been harmed.
Rather than continuing the unbridled and sometimes spurious attacks on the criminal justice system, society would do well to demand an honest dialogue that focuses on fairness, justice and accountability. I hope to contribute to that dialogue each week through this column.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.