“The Central Park Five” is a Ken Burns documentary film about the wrongful conviction of five teen-age boys — either Black or Latino — for the rape of a white woman who was jogging in Central Park in New York City in 1989. At a minimum, they served nearly 7 years in prison. In December of 2002, the convictions were set aside and the cases were dismissed after the real rapist confessed and a match to his DNA was made. It’s a riveting, powerful story of injustice. If you have not yet seen it but care at all about our criminal justice system, go see it.
Last week, I participated in a panel discussion about the film, moderated by Chuck Pizer of Vermont Public Television, with Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, and former Chittenden County Public Defender Nikki Fuller at the Fletcher Free Library here in Burlington.
In our discussion, the panelists and audience did what we all tend to do in an effort to make sense of that which just doesn’t make sense: we generalized for a broader lesson. And there are some broad lessons to take from this story.
“To err is human.” Our criminal justice system is human indeed. In performing one of its essential functions — sorting out guilt and innocence – the system can and sometimes does make mistakes. When it does, the damage, in terms of human suffering, is incalculable.
There are factors that make error more likely. The film stands witness to the fact that racial bias, sensational media coverage, and political pressure, can multiply the risk of a miscarriage of justice.
Minimizing such risk is one reason why it’s critical that our prosecutors have a firm grasp on their real job: not just getting convictions, but doing justice. It is why our system rests on protections for defendants like the right to counsel, the presumption of innocence, and the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Certainly one lesson of “The Central Park Five” is that we must constantly strive to make the sorting-out accurate. That requires faithfulness to the traditional values of our criminal justice system and in maximizing new opportunities that come our way to do a better job. New science and technology present new opportunities to assure that evidence is reliable. Today, for example, many police cars, and some policemen, are equipped with video cameras to record their encounters with the public. There is a growing movement to require the videotaping of all “on premises” police interrogations. And there is worthwhile research and continuing debate about the indicia of reliability to be required as to eyewitness identification testimony.
These trends should be nurtured.
As shocking and important as the film is, there’s an important sense in which “The Central Park Five” simply fails to provide much information about the real grist of the mill which is our criminal justice system.
Our system is mostly not about sorting guilt from innocence. In most cases, the evidence is strong and the defenses are few. The real subject of most criminal litigation the nature and extent of punishment.
Most people don’t think much about the convicted. Yet we live in the country with the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Are our people so much worse than those who live in other countries around the globe? Or this fact an artifact of our social policy rather than a characteristic our people?
Nor do most think about the fact that when a criminal sentence is over, the real punishment has often just begun.
For me, the most important moment in “The Central Park Five” is a detail most people probably miss. Near the end of the film, one of the five, Raymond Santana, is being interviewed about his life after he has been released from prison but before he’s been vindicated. He notes that, as a sex offender he was required to register every month. He says, with very simple eloquence, that even though he got his GED and a college degree in prison, “I can’t get a job.” He felt that he was becoming a burden on his family, and so he says, “I started selling drugs.” He got caught, pled guilty, and then went back to prison for three and a half to seven years, a longer term than he would have faced but for his previous conviction.
So here’s a truth that the film does not mention. A huge number of Americans have a record of a criminal conviction. By some accounts perhaps as many as 77 million persons. People with a record of conviction carry around extraordinarily heavy legal burdens. It is a legal web of restrictions and limitations that is vast and nearly invisible. These legal restrictions are the “collateral consequences” of criminal conviction.
Only now is a national inventory of the collateral consequences of criminal convictions being collected. Partial results suggest that some 30,00 to 50,000 statutes and regulations burden persons based on a history of conviction. The breadth and depth of these restrictions is mind-boggling. They affect not only the jobs people can engage in, but where they can live, what government benefits they qualify for, and even what civic activities they can engage in.
It’s no surprise that convicted felons are prohibited from carrying guns, and few of us would argue against the proposition that that makes good sense. Not all of these consequences make similarly good sense.
It’s a legal net that is beyond the comprehension of any individual. And it means that once in the system, only good luck, combined with care and good judgment, can hope to keep an individual out of it again.
No doubt race was the leading cause of the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five. But, unless we do something very real to mitigate the impact of collateral consequences of conviction, we risk allowing those consequences to re-segregate our society.
If our criminal justice system is to be worth its name, we must do more to assure that only the guilty are convicted. We must deal with the guilty in a way that protects our society, but also reflects compassion and enlightened self-interest.
Vermont Public Television will screen “The Central Park Five” on Saturday June 15, 2013 at 7:00 PM at its studio at 204 Ethan Allen Avenue off Route 15 at Fort Allen in Colchester, Vermont. You can also catch it on Netflix. It’s worth a look.