John Pfaff quoted in a Vox.com article about how the Netflix series Making a Murderer exposes the American criminal justice system’s biggest weakness: a total lack of accountability.
“The local level operates below the radar,” John Pfaff, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, said, pointing to the role of enormously powerful local prosecutors. “No one has any oversight for them, outside of the four states where [prosecutors]are appointed. There’s no one to step in and say, ‘You’re doing a bad job, you’re fired.’ Unless voters decide to step in and vote this person out, there’s very little accountability.”
Pfaff argued that people tend to underestimate the importance of the local system. For example, more than 530,000 people have signed twopetitions asking President Barack Obama to pardon Avery — even though Obama’s pardon powers are limited to federal crimes, and Avery is a state convict. It seems like a case of people assuming the federal system holds all the power when, in fact, the local and state systems do.
There is no easy answer to fixing this mess, but there are some ideas.
For one, voters could take law enforcement elections more seriously. Prosecutors, for instance, are tremendously powerful — Pfaff’s study found that prosecutors drove mass incarceration in the 1990s and 2000s by filing more charges even as arrests fell. Yet, as shown in Ronald Wright’s research, voters rarely hold prosecutors accountable.
“It’s an unsatisfying solution,” Pfaff said. “We’re all looking for that one big law or regulatory fix we can do. I don’t think that’s going to be where the answer comes from. I think it’s going to come from more of a long, slow slog and cultural shift.”
“Legislators could streamline the criminal codes a lot,” Pfaff said. “Some states can have 20 to 25 assault provisions, which gives [prosecutors]tremendous authority to stack multiple charges, pick and choose who they’re going to get and what for, etc.”
Read the entire Vox.com article.