Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ex-Prosecutor James Cameron, Unironically Flees Child Porn Sentencing

The story is like something out of a movie: porn, trial, conviction  appeal, reversal and escape! It makes for exciting news just in reporting the facts. But the case also says something about what's wrong with the criminal process. 

How did James Cameron's Case Get Here?

As has been widely reported, Cameron was convicted in 2010 of 13 Federal criminal counts related to possessing child pornography which was kept in online accounts and was sentenced to 16 years in Prison. He appealed claiming that the trial violated his rights to confront the witnesses against him since the government did not call witnesses to support computer forensic evidence from sites like Yahoo. At trial, the jury just saw documents from these sites which helped prove the crimes. After serving about 5 months, Cameron was granted bail pending appeal and the First Circuit just vacated 6 of the convictions. He was to be re-sentenced on the remaining charges, but after learning that the court let seven counts stand, he cut off his electronic monitoring device and disappeared.

Federal Wanted Poster for James Cameron, Federal DefendantWho Was this Guy?

James Cameron spent 18 years as a Maine Assistant Attorney General and was the State's top Drug Prosecutor at the time of the offense. He specialized in sending drug criminals to prison and by many accounts, he was not a very accommodating fellow. He was on the Adult Drug Court Steering committee which was supposed to develop ways to use the program to keep people out of prison, give them a chance at treatment and a productive life. He was not a huge fan. Cameron was pretty dismissive of the whole treatment approach and obstructed efforts to expand the program. Instead, he preferred to see folks just go to prison.

If Cameron Likes Prison so much, Why Doesn't he Just Go There?

Well...it's fun to talk "tough on crime" and to scoff at sissy ideas like sentencing reform or rehabilitative programs. Tough is more politically popular and besides, it has kind of macho feel to it. But now that the shoe is on the other foot, it looks like James Cameron no longer believes in the curative powers of a lengthy prison term. In fact, if it's all the same to you, he is going to just cut off his ankle monitor and make a break for it.

You see, a prosecutor, perhaps better than anyone, knows that sending someone to prison is a pretty horrible thing to do. Also, it doesn't usually make much sense. Incarceration is an arbitrary exercise that somehow equates a number of years of a life with transgressing social boundaries. It often does nothing to make the world safer, prevent future crimes or fix the issues that led to criminal activity. The problem is that, thanks to the work of tough on crime folks like James Cameron, incarceration is the only tool that most courts have available and. When you're a hammer, every defendant looks like an inmate.

Lessons Learned? (Probably Not)

Rehabilitation, treatment courts, sentencing reform, to legislatures these are expensive line items that look un-macho and soft on crime. The reality is that they probably save a lot of money and do much more to reduce recidivism than prison. Reasonable sentences and well publicized sentencing alternatives might also reduce the number of people who abscond, go on high speed chases or crime sprees rather than face the music.

So what will happen to James Cameron? He might stay gone, some fugitives have avoided arrest for years. More likely, he will turn up dead or just out of money and ideas in an Iowa motel room. Or maybe it will end in violence, with a police shootout that injures innocent bystanders. Cameron will know that capture means an even longer sentence, abuse at the hands of other inmates, no real access to treatment and the certainty of lifetime sex offener registration. So, as the marshalls close in, what does he have to loose? 

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