This is the first of a series of columns about crime, law, and the criminal justice system which will appear in the ______________. I am pleased to be writing them. I am going to try to provide some background to the stories about crime and the law that have appeared in the news, as well as some practical information about dealing with the legal system.
This is an exciting prospect for me. There are so many types of crimes to discuss - crimes as old as murder and as new as different varieties of computer crimes - crimes that we know well and crimes that we wouldn't even have imagined a few years ago. We are going to talk about them all.
We are going to talk about international crimes, the crimes of multi-national corporations, new international cartels, trafficking in children for sexual purposes, and environmental racism.
Nationally, we will talk about drug policy, doctor-assisted suicide, police abuse of minorities, and the burgeoning prison population.
In Florida we have the debate over the use of the electric chair and the death penalty. We have an ongoing controversy over boot camps, and the privatization of prisons, over gun control and plans to introduce new gun control laws in the next legislative session.
So, we have a lot of ground to cover.
I say "we" because this is not a monologue, but a dialogue. Your input, comments and questions are not only welcomed, but needed. I want to know what types of crimes you're interested in, what issues concern you, and what kinds of questions you have about the criminal justice system. What do you do if your child is arrested? What are the rights of the police when they stop you on a minor traffic violation? If I don't know the answers I'll enjoy along with you, finding them.
By way of introduction, I'm a criminologist and professor at Florida A & M University. I have had over 25 years of experience studying crime, law and criminology not only in the United States but in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Scotland, England, Wales, Sweden, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Saipan and El Salvador.
I have a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Law at the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Scotland and have written and published three academic books: Power, Ideology and the War on Drugs: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure; State Crime, the Media and the Invasion of Panama, and The Origins of Violence in Mexico.
I have given numerous presentations nationally and internationally and done seminars on drug policy in Colombia and Puerto Rico. I am currently working as the Editor for a collection of books in a series called Law, Power and Justice in Comparative Perspective. The first book in the series, entitled Law, Power and Justice in England and Wales will be coming out soon. I have also worked with the Fulton County Juvenile Court, the Atlanta Police Department, the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Criminal Conspiracies Division of the Justice Department.
Today, I want to begin by talking about a new law (an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968) which bans anyone convicted of domestic violence offenses from carrying a gun. This includes police officers. The nation's largest police organization has come out against the law. To their credit they've stated that they do not condone domestic violence, but just object to the retroactive application of the statute. What they're talking about is that the current interpretation of the law means that even officers who have had domestic violence convictions in their pasts must now hang up their guns. I suppose for the police officers, this must seem like an unfair changing of the penalty after the crime. But, it is after all, only changing the penalty, not the crime. Retroactive application of the law does not make criminal what was not criminal when it occurred. What these guys did was illegal, and it was just as illegal before the ban as after it. And, there are some sound reasons for applying this statute retroactively The statute was intended to help protect the spouses of abusive people by removing at least one potential type of weapon from easy access. I don't know why the spouses of police officers should be left more vulnerable than anyone else, and that's what they'll be if we ignore the past convictions of law enforcement officers. And, also the retroactive application of the law gets police officers who have been convicted of attacking their spouses or children off the street. The law has already caused some police departments to screen potential employees more carefully for prior domestic violence convictions. This seems like a good idea to me. Can you imagine being a woman who has been beaten to a bloody pulp by her husband and calling the police. In walks some man who has done the very same thing to his wife, or his children. You wouldn't expect to get a very fair deal from a guy like that, now would you? In fact, one of the problems with the enforcement of domestic violence laws has always been getting police officers to take the laws seriously. I figure it's just as well to have police officers with an abusive past cooling their heels behind a desk or doing something else for a living rather than responding to domestic violence calls. After all, we don't hire people with drug dealing records to fight the war on drugs now do we?. And, we aren't just talking about spousal abuse. We're talking about the abuse of children as well. Do we really want men who have been abusing children - hitting them, slapping them, kicking and shoving them - to be walking around the streets with guns? I don't think so. The people who lived next door to my parents rented their house out once when they went out of town. Shortly after the new family moved in, my mother stood in a window and watched the father hold the arm of a six year old and slap him repeatedly across the face.
Finally, when she could stand it no longer, she stormed out the back door and pointed her finger at the man.
"If you touch that child one more time, I'll phone the police." She said to him. He merely stared at her like she was crazy. "Lady," he finally responded. "I am the police."
And he was, a newly hired sheriff's deputy. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't want that guy roaming around the streets carrying a gun and representing me. Of course, some people argue that the law will only make guys like this do their slapping inside the house instead of in the back yard, but I still think the law will make a powerful statement to police officers about how seriously society is beginning to take domestic violence.
Dr. Johns' commentaries can be heard on WFSU's Morning Edition. Her program about crime and the law for the blind, Crime Links, can be heard every Wednesday afternoon from 4-5 PM on the secondary audio feature of some television sets. Tune in to WFSU television.