Freedom, the saying goes, isn't free, and it turns out that justice isn't either. A panel of California prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and others with a vital interest in the state's criminal justice system concluded two years of work last week by making recommendations on how to protect the rights of the accused. But many remain on indefinite hold because the state has no money to act on them.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice offered common-sense reforms for non-capital cases that would reduce the state's large number of mistaken identifications of suspects, cut down on perjured testimony by self-serving jailhouse informants and even help reduce false confessions by innocent defendants. It's a shame -- in every sense of the word -- that some of these safeguards are being shelved for budgetary reasons.
A bill requiring police to tape-record interrogations of suspects in custody -- to assure that confessions are not falsely extracted -- will not reach Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. The governor vetoed earlier versions of the bill because of opposition from law enforcement agencies that considered the mandate too burdensome, even though they have an obvious interest in assuring that the real criminal, and not some innocent substitute, goes to prison. This year, the measure never even got out of committee because it was deemed too expensive. Also dead on arrival, in part because of costs, was a bill to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications. Still alive is Senate Bill 1589, which would require prosecutors statewide to follow the lead of the Los Angeles district attorney and bar testimony and tips by jailhouse snitches unless they are corroborated. Opposition based on the minimal costs is misplaced.
Fortunately, the failed bills could still have an impact, because they create an opportunity for defense lawyers in criminal cases to question why police and prosecutors didn't follow the standards that their counterparts elsewhere in the state already impose. And the cost of implementing the changes is very low compared to the cost of undoing the damage from a false prosecution or conviction. That will pressure law enforcement officials across the state to adopt and pay for the reforms on their own.
If state lawmakers are looking for a way to fund the needed law enforcement mandates, we have a suggestion: End capital punishment. The commission's report makes it abundantly clear that California's death-penalty apparatus is the justice system's black hole. It sucks in money that, spent more wisely, would provide a higher quality of justice for more people.