The populace’s shocked reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict is telling: deep down, people still believe that justice prevails in U.S. courts. The truth, however, is that the court system is flawed in just about every way imaginable. The courts are in the practice of handing out punishments – not justice – which generally work to oppress our country’s racial minority and impoverished people.
Here are six ways the Justice System fails to promote actual justice:
1. Threats Necessitate Plea Bargains
In other countries like the U.K., the prosecution cannot threaten to pursue more aggressive charges if a suspect does not plead guilty and wants to go to trial. In America, however, this is just standard practice. The idea behind our justice system is that everyone gets his or her day in court, but that is rarely how things play out anymore. In many instances, maintaining your innocence is considered a dumb move because the potential punishment is so hefty. In most cases, people plead guilty and take a lesser punishment regardless of their culpability because the risks of losing at trial is far too risky. How is that justice?
2. Unequal Incarceration Rates
In the U.S., African Americans are six times and Latinos are 3 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. Before you blame it all on behavior, police seem to disproportionately target certain people for arrests. Despite similar drug usage rates, black people are four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges. Moreover, punishments are not allocated equally. On average, judges sentence black convicts to 20% more jail time than white people who committed the same crime. How do you help convince a country that black and brown people are dangerous criminals? By disproportionately locking them up more often and longer to reinforce the idea that they are criminals.
3. For-Profit Prisons
Why does the U.S. have the world’s highest incarceration rate? As usual in this country, follow the money for the answer. Over the years, prisons have gone from a state-run entity to a private enterprise. Since maximizing profits for this industry requires stuffing as many bodies into the jails as possible, that means the demand for new inmates is always high. We can’t expect justice to be served when rich people have a financial interest in seeing more people locked up.
4. Public Defense is a Joke
Those who can’t afford a defense are supposed to be afforded a public defender attorney, but that is not always provided. There are documented cases of people being offered an immediate plea “deal” if they agree to not request council. The poor lawyers who agree to serve as public defenders are underpaid and overworked, and often lack the time and resources to adequately mount an effective case against the state’s prosecution. A great new HBO documentary, Gideon’s Army, portrays just how unviable the system is for everyone involved.
5. Winning Trumps Justice
With pressure from the state to obtain convictions, prosecutors are forced to play a game where being on the winning side is more important than being on the right side. Somewhere in this process, the idea of finding justice is lost. Prosecutors should be tasked with presenting a fair case, not attempt to win at any cost, particularly when “winning” may mean a potentially innocent person’s freedom is at stake.
6. Corrupted by Campaign Money
Think legislators are the only elected officials whose positions have been compromised by the Citizens United decision and the subsequent need to appeal to campaign donors? Think again: state judges (who decide 95% of the country’s court cases) are subject to the same warped system.
38 states require its top judges to run for office, and since voters generally knows little about its judicial candidates, the winner is usually the person who spends the most to get his or her (usually his) name out there. This leaves judges beholden to their private interest campaign financiers, which has unsurprisingly led to a surge of decisions in favor of corporations rather than individuals.