The din of electioneering is hard to avoid, and the in-your-face campaigns are steaming ahead toward the finish line. The media loves races that have at least one colorful, often contentious, contender. The attention has been on the colorful quotes and campaign woes of New York’s Carl Paladino and the mustachioed The Rent Is Too Damn High candidate, Jimmy McMillan. But what about the other slots that have gotten less coverage?
These races are important too, and in some cases, perhaps more important than the SNL version of our political system. Drill down far enough, and all politics is local. We may think globally, but in the end, we act locally and vote on the basis of local issues.
But what if local is a prison cell? When your environment is restricted and the walls that surround you are dingy and locked, local starts to have new meaning. Especially if you are innocent.
As Jeffrey Deskovic looked around his sparse cell at the Elmira Correctional Facility 20 years ago, he wondered who would be able to help. At the age of 16, he didn’t have the kind of political savvy that could answer that question. He knew he was innocent, but his defense team had failed to convince the jury. The local cops and prosecutors, who Deskovic naively had trusted would be on his side, went out of their way not to help him, but to gain his conviction. Local politics.
As Darryl King sat in his cell at the Attica Correctional Facility not long after the infamous riots, he wondered what local pols might help him prove his innocence. He, too, felt hopeless. Older but not significantly more schooled in the ways of the criminal system than Deskovic, he was dependent on legal aid to mount a defense for a cop killing right smack in the middle of a period of high crime and public outcries to make killing a police officer a capital offense in the state. The cops wanted blood for the death of one of their own. Never mind scant evidence. Local politics.
While these men don’t represent the majority of prisoners, their stories are not as exceptional as we would like to think; they are far from the only examples. Just this week, Anthony Graves was exonerated and freed after serving 16 years on death row in Texas. With the advent of DNA evidence, there have been 261 post-DNA conviction exonerations (through 2009). This unveiling of injustice is troubling not only because of the wasted years for those locked up, but also because it points to a deeper problem within the criminal justice system. According to the organization The Exoneration Initiative, “DNA exonerations are only the tip of the iceberg, representing a mere fraction of the wrongful convictions. However without DNA evidence, very few lawyers and organizations have the expertise and the resources to effectively handle these extremely difficult non-DNA cases.” And so they linger but for the few organizations that can handle such cases. Like a disease that only affects a small portion of the population, there’s little funding and little interest unless it affects you personally. Local politics.
Although we know there are many aspects of our criminal justice system that are broken, most politicians are unwilling to support measures that might address the injustices. The label “soft on crime” is not one a candidate wants hurled during election season, and reform of the system is not a headline issue.
The good news is that there are politicians who have been working to fix the system, and one of them is running for top lawyer for the state. Eric Schneiderman has been fighting for justice and reform from his perch in the state senate. He sponsored or co-sponsored several bills related to criminal justice reform, notably, the innocence justice act of 2010 (an update of the 2009 bill), which grants convicted persons the right to challenge their convictions under the law if they can demonstrate a reasonable possibility that they are innocent (S6234). This, in itself, would go a long way toward changing the system and keeping the public safer. When an innocent person is locked up, the actual perpetrator is often on the loose. Other reforms include use of sequential line-ups, mandatory videotaping of police questioning, and preservation of DNA evidence, among others.
In contrast, Schneiderman’s opponent Dan Donovan, the current Staten Island DA, proudly touts his 90-percent conviction rate. Conviction rate as a measure of success for a prosecutor is like measuring a teacher’s success by student test scores. Neither is a good bellwether and both carefully sidestep the tough questions and systemic problems. And while Superman has made his Hollywood entrance into the school business, there is no Spiderman casting a net around the criminal justice system, ready to catch those who fall through the cracks. The kinds of reforms Schneiderman has been working on in Albany are not on Donovan’s radar. Donovan endorsements by Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, the heavies of law and order, are telling of Donovan’s style and priorities. Those who have been subject to the maladies of the system, however, endorse Schneiderman: Deskovic and King.
Obviously, these are not the only issues in this race, and the office of attorney general, in general, doesn’t get the exposure and ink that surrounds the governor or other state officials. Even Eliot Spitzer, with his aggressive pursuit of Wall Street, was not a household name outside of the financial community until his coup de grce. And Andrew Cuomo didn’t make much of a blip until he started his run for governor.
Nevertheless, the office of attorney general is powerful and it affects the public in ways we don’t think about most of the time. The person at the top sets the tone and priorities for prosecution, both civil and criminal, cases that make headlines only if they’re extreme. Otherwise, they go unnoticed unless you have some personal involvement — like sitting in jail for a crime you didn’t commit.
So before Tuesday, go see the film Conviction and then decide if criminal-justice reform should be part of your own local issue for voting in this race. There are heroes here, but no superheroes with the financial backing of the superwealthy. The takeaway is the dire need for a safety net, and this election could go a long way toward creating one.