A trio of legal experts from across the ideological spectrum offered some scathing criticism of the criminal justice system last night at a forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by The Constitution Project, which works on criminal justice reform and other issues. They were Judge Alex Kozinski, a Republican appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit basedin San Francisco, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and Stephen Bright of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. Kozinski discussed a law review article he published last summer, summarized in Crime & Justice News, that offered a wide-ranging critique of the justice system. Last night, he remarked that some aspects of the justice system “we regarded as safe harbors turn out not to be so safe.” The system usually works but it “makes mistakes more often than we think,” he said.
Lee, a former federal prosecutor, was prompted to become a leader in current efforts to rewrite federal sentencing laws when he observed what he described as unwarranted “human costs” of mandatory minimum drug sentences on some defendants. He cited the case of Weldon Angelos, who was prosecuted by Lee’s former office for selling marijuana to a police informant that was worth a total of $350. Under federal law, a judge was required to give Angelos a 55-year prison sentence with no possibility of parole. Lee commented that “Congress might have got carried away” when it passed a series of laws in the 1980s requiring mandatory minimum terms. Bright complained of elected judges in many states who “can’t enforce the Constitution if they want to keep their jobs.” He also charged that the criminal justice system remains biased against blacks in many areas of the South. Bright is arguing a case before the Supreme Court next week contesting prosecutors’ striking black potential jurors.