Hit & Run

Former Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Calls for Criminal Justice Reform

Says too many innocent people go to jail because of bad forensics and poor counsel.


White House

The push for criminal justice reform in mainstream politics continues. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served from 2005 to 2007 under President Bush after being his White House counsel since 2001, penned an op-ed calling for criminal justice reform in today's USA Today.

He began with an anecdote from his time as general counsel to George Bush when Bush was governor of Texas in the 1990s, and how he had to tell a young rape victim DNA evidence has revealed she identified the wrong man as her accuser. That man had been convicted and spent 12 years in jail before being exonerated.

"That story is not rare," Gonzales wrote, pointing to statistics from the National Registry of Exoneration that identified 149 convicted defendants who were exonerated in 2015. "Even one mistake is one too many and a miscarriage of justice for the individual wrongly incarcerated," Gonzales wrote. "At the same time, it is also a miscarriage of justice for victims like the one who sat in my office in 1997. For them, the guilty have gone free."

Gonzales insisted he supports "tough justice," but that any formulation of justice has to involve only the guilty being punished. He is no longer convinced "forensic science" is as solid as the law enforcement community has claimed:

Subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques such as bite mark, hair comparison and even fingerprint analysis might not have sufficient scientific foundation. Even certain types of DNA analysis are now open to reasonable questions about their capacity to connect a specific individual to a crime.

Former Reason editor Radley Balko, now of the Washington Post, has written extensively about flimflam forensics. The case of Cory Maye, an innocent man put on death row over the killing of a cop, involved forensics that was presented in a "downright misleading" way, as Balko reported.

Gonzales also pointed out the problem with public defenders and their role in contributing to bad prosecutions. Often, those accused and without resources cannot wait for a court-appointed lawyer because spending time in jail can cost their job," Gonzales wrote. "They are forced to plead guilty though they have not committed a crime."

Gonzales also brought up Guantanamo Bay and what he saw as the public's misprioritization of constitutional rights. "There appears to be more public outrage over the perceived lack of constitutional protections for foreign terrorists held in the military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for acts committed overseas than there is for U.S. citizens wrongly convicted in this country," wrote Gonzales. "That is a sad commentary."

The evolving opinions of leading law enforcement figures like Gonzales matter, because they make it more difficult to relegate criminal justice reform to the fringes. Conversely, the devolving opinions of people like Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate who attached himself to criminal justice reform before worrying, dishonestly, that such reforms would lead to violent felons returning to the streets. Such political posturing is dangerous because it feeds into the ill-informed fears of a gullible public. It's certainly anathema to liberty, even as Cruz pushes hard to win the "liberty vote," such as it may be.