The Goshen News Editorial — Ignoring the Facts — Supporting the Status Quo

One out of every 100 adults in the USA is currently in prison (1).  This makes the USA by far, the largest jailer in the world.  With a little less than 5% of the Earth’s population the USA accounts for about 25% of the worlds prisoners (2).  It was estimated that in 2008 the entire costs of prisons in the USA (Local, State and Federal) was 75 Billion Dollars (3).

With a background of these statistics The Goshen News published their editorial “Murder Charge is Appropriate For Home Invasion Death” on August 18, 2013.  In the editorial the staff at The Goshen News strongly supported the decision of Elkhart Country Prosecutor Curtis Hill to charge Blake Layman, Anthony Sharp and Levi Sparks with felony murder in the death of their friend and co-perpetrator Danzele Johnson.

There are many reasons for the massive increase in prison populations in the USA over the past 40 years.  One of the most insidious reasons has been that politicians and political parties benefit from advocating a tough on crime agenda which portrays criminals as horrible scum from which we all need protection.  This is done when in reality there is very little evidence that the extreme tough on crime stance of politicians has had any real success in reducing criminality.

In the USA, like in all countries around the world, there are crimes that are horrific.  Crimes where the actions of an individual or a group are so horrid that it is hard to see the humanity in the individual or individuals who commit such acts.  One of the crimes at the top of this list is first-degree murder.  First-degree murder is intentionally killing another person.  Often these horrific crimes grab newspaper and TV headlines and dominate reporting.  Often the facts (and sensational coverage) of these crimes cause citizens to question humanity and hope that the perpetrator will be dealt with harshly.  (It is difficult if not impossible to argue that the case of The Elkhart 4 is one of these cases, yet this is the viewpoint of The Goshen News.)

The problem is that the vast majority of prisoners in the United States (like The Elkhart 4) are not incarcerated for decades for these horrific crimes . . . instead they are caught up in a system of ever growing vague laws and increased prosecutions.  In a recent book Harvey Silverglate estimated that the average American unknowingly commits three felonies a day.  The research points to a wide range of laws that are often interpreted broadly and often have little or know impact on crime rates.  In our opinion one of the most obvious examples of one such law is the thee strikes law.  Such a law looks good on paper, but really has no impact on criminal behaviour.

Another such law is the felony murder rule.  This law states that if someone is killed during the commission of a felony all participants in that felony are guilty of first-degree murder.  This is the law that convicted Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp.  Detailed criticisms of this law can be found in many places including (The Huffington Post — article by Steve Drizin, Constitutional Sentences for Juveniles Convicted of Felony Murder in the Wake of Roper, Graham & J.D.B. and It’s a Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Felony Murder) The Goshen News supported the application of the felony murder law in the case of The Elkhart 4, in the papers August 18, 2013 editorial (without citing any sources detailing the effectiveness of the law)

The Goshen News has a right to their opinion, and that is what this editorial was an opinion, however; there are major concerns in the construction of the writing.   The biggest concern is the fact that the article ignored many important aspects of this case, especially the fact that two of the defendants were juveniles and the facts that it is questionable if the way the law was applied in this case is actually legal based on the working of the law.

The first concern we have with the editorial is the assumption that The Goshen News makes that the Indiana Felony Murder Law actually applies to these boys.  The wording of the law states “A person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit arson, burglary, child molesting, consumer product tampering, criminal deviate conduct, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking, commits murder, a felony.”  In this case none of the Elkhart 4 killed the victim in this crime.  There is an ambiguity to this law that was described by Indiana State Representative Ryan Dvorak when he said, “If you actually read the statue, the language of the statute probably would not apply to the kids in this case”.

This ambiguity in the law is dangerous.  David Crump from the University of Houston Law Center supports the idea of the felony murder rule, but stresses the importance of the laws being well written to avoid ambiguity (4).  This is not the case in Indiana and The Goshen News is very willing to ignore this in their editorial.

The second concern we have with the editorial is that The Goshen News staff ignored the juvenile status of two of the defendants (Layman and Sparks).  As coverage of this case moves away from local media to the national and international media there is significant concern about the fact that the age of the defendants was not taken into account in the prosecution.  We have already documented how The Goshen News in its news coverage ignored the juvenile status of Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Jose Quiroz.  They did it again in this editorial.  This is a huge omission that calls into question the quality and depth of research that went into this editorial.  The age of these defendants in this case is a central issue and any quality writing on this case cannot ignore the juvenile issues, no matter the opinion being expressed.

In the editorial The Goshen News does not reference any sources.  The have pointed to no evidence that their view on this case will actually make a difference to criminal activity in Elkhart.  The actions of The Goshen News are very similar to the actions of an insidious politician who calls for a tough on crime agenda knowing full well such an agenda does not reduce crime.  Editorials like the one in The Goshen News ignores evidence, solid research and the reality of a failing justice system.  Instead the editorial calls for the status quo which is a failing, ineffective and often very brutal justice system.

The justice system in the USA is broken and must be fixed.  This cannot happen as long politicians and newspapers view the system and criminals through the failed prism of the “though on crime agenda.”

Research is clear . . .the long sentences being served by Blake Layman, Levi Sparks, Jose Quiroz and Anthony Sharp are costing the taxpayers of Indiana millions of dollars.  There is little evidence that the streets are safer and there is strong evidence that these boys are in for decades of mistreatment, abuse and quality schooling in criminality.   But these facts are easily ignored by the editorial in The Goshen News.

(1) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/08/13/wonkbook-11-facts-about-americas-prison-population/

(2) https://www.aclu.org/safe-communities-fair-sentences/prison-crisis

(3) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-mcelwee/incarceration-america_b_3528901.html

(4) http://works.bepress.com/david_crump/7/