Valena E. Beety


Of the 1.6 million Americans in prison, most inmates are serving sentences for non-violent offenses. Who is responsible? Hyper-incarceration is not simply due to outdated drug laws or stringent sentencing. Courts in the last thirty years have taken a lackadaisical back seat. Prosecutors are failing in their gate-keeping function nationally. Most simple arrests are prosecuted without even evaluating the substance of the case. Police stops can snowball into convictions through our plea system. In short, the criminal justice system provides no systemic accountability for its own results. This Article focuses on this lack of accountability and proposes a conceptual shift, as well as a practical solution: pivoting accountability to the courts. Twelve states recognize the capacity of judges to dismiss cases in the interest of justice. Dismissal in the interest of justice allows a court to dismiss a procedurally proper, but unjust or unjustifiable, cause of action. Thus, dismissing cases in the interest of justice can provide a check where few exist for overzealous prosecutions, race-based patrolling, and overuse of “three strikes” laws. In addition, dismissals can require more consistency and reliability in evidence and in state prosecutions, whether on the misdemeanor or felony level. And ultimately all states can create this capacity through state laws and state rules of criminal procedure. Transforming our prison paradigm moves beyond shifting individual laws; court-initiated dismissals can address the underlying problem of accountability. By finding a practical application already in use by some states, this Article creates a useful framework for both ends of the spectrum: conceptually reforming our system while practically assisting individual cases and lives.

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