Improving the criminal justice system

The American criminal justice system is unique in the level of protection it affords persons accused of crimes. Yet expansion of these protections beyond reason actually undermines the criminal justice process and can threaten the lives and well-being of those who one day might become victims of crime.

To help correct this problem, President Reagan has proposed to revise three judicial rules that have been seriously abused in recent years and have thus become impediments to justice.

The insanity defense is perhaps the most obvious example of a rule gone awry. When originally conceived, it was designed to protect mentally disturbed persons who, in committing a crime, did not understand what they were doing. Today, the accepted definition of insanity has become so broad that the mere irrationality of an individual's actions can free him from conviction.

Unfortunate consequences of this defense abound. In one Alaska case, for example, a man who murdered a retarded Indian because of the victim's ''irritating voice'' was found ''not guilty by reason of insanity'' and was sent to a mental hospital. A few years later he was declared no longer insane and was released. Subsequently he shot four teen-agers to death - again pleading insanity.

The President's proposal would limit this defense to its intended purpose by applying it to only those defendants who did not know what they were doing - such as a person so deluded that he did not know he was holding a gun or pointing it at a human being.

But a defendant who knew what he was doing could be convicted even if he were acting irrationally. His mental state would be relevant solely in determining the nature of punishment and treatment.

The President has also proposed to revise the exclusionary rule, a judicially created edict that bans courtroom use of criminal evidence deemed improperly obtained.

Devised to deter police misconduct, this rule has now become a common defense tool to exclude evidence even in situations where the police officer had no reason to believe his actions were improper.

In such instances, the rule can have no deterrent impact. Its only effect is to free defendants who are clearly guilty, no matter how abominable their crimes , because a judge decides in retrospect that the police officer made a mistake - usually a minor one - in securing the evidence.

In fact, the exclusionary rule is applied even in the grayest areas of the law, thereby creating severe judgment problems for the arresting officer. In one California case, for example, 14 judges ruled at various times on the propriety of a policeman's search. Seven approved it; seven disapproved it.

If 14 legal experts, sitting in quiet deliberation, cannot negotiate the law's intricacies, then a police officer, lacking judicial training and acting possibly in a life-or-death situation, should not be expected to do so either.

Recognizing this, President Reagan has proposed to restrict application of this exclusionary rule to instances of conscious police misconduct, where a deterrent effect is possible. In other cases, in which the police obtained evidence in the reasonable, good-faith belief that their actions were lawful, the rule could not be invoked.

Finally, the President has proposed to reform the process by which federal courts intervene in state criminal proceedings.

Requests for federal intervention through the writ of habeas corpus - originally designed as an extraordinary remedy - have today become an almost automatic means for delaying justice, with defendants seeking continual review of state convictions, often on frivolous grounds. So used, the procedure needlessly duplicates the many other layers of state and federal review, while seriously compromising the ultimate finality of criminal verdicts.

The President's proposal would restore federal intervention to its original purpose by limiting its use to cases in which legitimate appellate questions were present.

The three reforms described above acknowledge that the paramount purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect Americans from crime. The changes would thus correct the imbalance between the law-abiding citizen and the criminal defendant, modifying judicial actions that have tended in the past to unfairly benefit the criminal at the expense of innocent victims.

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