Monday, April 10, 2006

Our inconsistent thoughts about botched paperwork

The San Jose Mercury News reports on the travails of Longino Acero, 47, who has been repeatedly been prosecuted, and forced to plead guilty, for failing to register as a convicted child molester. The clerk in his 1978 case for the misdemeanor of soliciting lewd and lascivious acts with an adult wrote down the wrong parenthesis of the penal code provision for which he was convicted.

Because Acero had a lengthy criminal record for other types of offenses, his claim that he was not convicted of child molestation was consistently disregarded by probation officers, police, and his own attorneys. Consequently he was forced to plead guilty and was incarcerated for failing to register three times. Two of these prosecutions arose out of arrests for jaywalking -- crossing the street outside a crosswalk!

Unfortunately this situation is widespread. Criminal history records, especially court records which have historically been entered by hand in busy courtrooms, are known to most criminal justice practitioners to be widely inaccurate. Yet it is logical that they are accepted as accurate by courts.

Statutes designed to harshly punish recidivists, such as "three strikes and you are out," with their powerful appeal to the crime-fearing, justice-demanding public, are especially likely to risk grave injustice because the records upon which they depend are actually unreliable.

Society and the criminal justice system are keen to harshly punish the failure of the convicted child offender to file the paper work notice of his new address. But we are indifferent to systematically correcting erroneous criminal justice paperwork, or to satisfy the due process requirement to verify the paperwork when records are challenged by the accused.

This is a sadly inconsistent way to think about paperwork, isn't it?

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