Richard’s Rant: Criminal Sentencing Gone Haywire

A weekly raving about the rampant injustices the criminal “justice” community faces. This week, Richard addresses the deep flaws in the sentencing system.

April 22, 2021

Introduction: Sabrina Butler-Smith via the Witness to Innocence Project

Sabrina Butler-Smith was a Mississippi teenager when she became a victim of wrongful conviction due to false or misleading forensic evidence and prosecutorial misconduct. She endured six and a half years in prison, two years and nine months of which were on death row. She has since been exonerated of all wrongdoing. She is one of only two women in the United States exonerated from death row.

Sabrina’s murder trial commenced in March 1990. At the trial, prosecutors sought to prove that Sabrina’s account of the events leading to her infant son’s death were false, and that she had inflicted the fatal wounds intentionally. Sabrina did not testify at her trial, and was convicted of both murder and child abuse, becoming the only woman on Mississippi’s Death Row at the time.

Following her conviction, Sabrina filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Mississippi. The courts reversed and remanded her convictions in August 1992, declaring that the prosecution had failed to prove that the incident was anything more than an accident. On December 17, 1995, Sabrina was exonerated after spending six and a half years in prison and two years and nine months on death row.

Watch Sabrina Butler-Smith LIVE on Tha Yard

Richard’s Rant: It’s hard to imagine a more tragic story of a corrupt criminal justice system than Sabrina’s. But make no mistake about it: her case was far from the exception. Right now, there are about 2500 people on death row. No less a scholarly journal than Proceedings of the National Academy of Science stated that approximately 4% of these people are innocent.

But look at another place where criminal sentencing has gone completely haywire.

On Tuesday, the District Attorney for New York City announced that he would no longer be prosecuting prostitution cases. Did you know that every year, 70–80,000 people — almost all women — are arrested for prostitution. Millions of women are going through life with the stigma of an arrest record that now, in some places, is essentially no longer a crime.

If that doesn’t get you thinking, consider the fact that in 2019, more than 500,000 people were arrested for simple possession of marijuana — we’re not talking about Columbian drug lords. We’re talking about mostly young people popped for smoking a joint or buying a nickel bag of pot.

Tens of millions of Americans walking around right now were arrested, and now have a rap sheet that makes it difficult — if not impossible — for them to land a job, find a home, or look their family in the eye. Hundreds of thousands are in and out of jails for these so-called crimes.

People tend to think that morality is black and white. You’re either a criminal, which means you’re a monster, or you’re a good person. But what happens when attitudes change, and it’s no longer fashionable to be tough on those committing such offenses. They end up being collateral damage of a war that was lost when one side decided to walk away. But the damage lasts forever, as long as there’s an internet and a rap sheet.

Which brings us back to our guest, Sabrina. What happens when the powers that be don’t play by the rules, or get it wrong completely? In a rush to dole out swift justice, which is often just a case of a corrupt, racist system looking for a fall guy, lives of not only the wrongly convicted are ruined, but so also are the lives of their families and communities.

My father used to tell me when I was young that I would make mistakes — that’s inevitable. But once you realize that it’s your responsibility to own up to it and try to make it right. In the case of all those rotting away for small-change drug and prostitution charges, nothing short of immediately releasing them from prison and expunging their records is right.

That’s my rant, and I’m sticking to it.

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