Lawyer and journalist Amy Bach spent nearly a decade investigating the problems that plague the U.S. criminal court system. Out of her research came a critically acclaimed and award-winning book, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, (Metropolitan Books, 2009).
Bach couldn’t believe the things she saw and heard during the course of her research. She knew she had to do more than simply write about the myriad injustices she witnessed, so last year she started an organization called Measures For Justice. The centerpiece of her concept is a “Justice Index” which ranks local courts based on their effectiveness in crime reduction and recidivism prevention. After all, the U.S. manages the largest penal system in the world, and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 20%, or 65.7 million people in our country have criminal records.
It’ll be no small task to collect and consolidate the data from America’s 3,141 counties, but Bach is nothing if not determined, and her idea is so good, she won a 2011 Echoing Green Fellowship. I recently interviewed Bach about her experiences both in researching her book, and in starting up Measures for Justice. Here’s what she had to say:
Eight years is a long time to spend sitting in trial courts across America. What most shocked you about what you found during the course of your research?
What astonished me, and what made me want to write a book and kept me engaged, is that smart, committed hard working professionals routinely act in ways that falls short of what it is people in their position are supposed to be doing. And not even realize that anything is missing. Or that their behavior has devastating consequences for ordinary peoples’ lives. This is ordinary injustice.
How did the idea of starting your organization, Measures For Justice, come to you?
I started reporting my book in 2001 and became obsessed with the way patterns of errors can be so widespread and yet invisible to insiders who work in the courts. Victims, defendants and their families have no way to prove unfair treatment. The only game changer seemed to be the ability to prove a pattern of lapses.
In 2004, I was having dinner with friends and describing how legal professionals can become blind to “chronic injustice.” One, a political scientist, said, “you need an Index.” Another, a doctor, said, “yes, the equivalent measure of blood pressure or cholesterol.” I met with a brilliant professor who specializes in measurement and the courts at Harvard and I told him I wanted to do an Index. [He] pointed me to some literature that helped me form the basis of the book’s conclusion.
Later I learned about other indexes. And I discovered how various U.S. aid programs have created “rule of law” indicators to help courts abroad find these patterns. Also, indexes existed to reveal the quality of justice worldwide — the Rule of Law Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Governance Index, and the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, etc. But there was nothing in the U.S.
What’s the purpose of the Justice Index?
Measures For Justice seeks to design, create and deploy a broad-based Justice Index to objectively assess the performance of local criminal trial courts throughout the United States and enable continuous improvement in the ways fundamental legal services are delivered nationally. If legal professionals can be alerted to patterns of problems based on credible metrics, they can do their best work and everyone will receive the benefits afforded by the U.S. Constitution.
What is at the heart of your organization?
At the heart of the organization is a desire to make our court system better for three key groups of people: those who touch the system such as defendants, witnesses and victims; those who work for the system such as lawyers, judges and other employees; and the taxpaying citizens who deserve a court system that keeps them safe and uses their tax dollars efficiently.
By developing an index that exposes patterns of problems and that addresses three key issues: fairness and accuracy, public safety and fiscal responsibility, we believe we will achieve our goals which are really the core principles of the adversarial system in America.
You say we measure everything in America — except our courts. Why?
That’s a great question. People who experience the court system don’t form coalitions in the same way that citizens do for schools or water supply or hospitals. They behave in the way that many of us do with other dysfunctional systems.
Victims and defendants who have been hurt by the system generally want to put the experience behind them and move on with their lives. Many of these people have few resources or financial support. The idea of building coalitions to improve their courts can’t be at the top of their to do list.
What’s the ultimate goal for Measures for Justice?
Our Index will be to average Americans what the infant mortality rate is, for instance, to children in impoverished countries: a tool, a diagnostic, and, most important, an early means to begin to address problems before a major crisis occurs. So individuals aren’t forced to walk away with their individual stories.
Why do you think your idea will work?
Good data can expose patterns and problems that are otherwise invisible to the casual observer. Take Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. In 2009, advocates heard stories that children who came to juvenile court were being sent to jail for almost nothing, and without lawyers to protect their rights.
Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center brought a suit in the state Supreme Court alleging that for 2005 and 2006, more than fifty percent of juveniles appeared in court without attorneys—nearly ten times the state average. Despite the disturbing numbers, the Supreme Court dismissed the complaint. But by presenting this data to the media, journalists caught onto the story. State and federal agencies started investigating. And the judges who presided in Luzerne were reassigned. Soon after, the judges were charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from private detention facilities in exchange for putting kids in prison who didn’t belong there.
What saved the day for these children was not appellate review, but a data set showing the pattern of abuse.
What are some of the most egregious examples of “ordinary injustice” that you came across in your travels?
The ones that I often mention are the prosecutor who had no idea that he hadn’t taken on a domestic violence case in 21 years. “Has it been that long?” he said. Yes. That long.
Or the public defender who pleaded 48 people guilty in a little over one day. He could do it because he didn’t know the facts of their cases. And it was more efficient to take a plea. “Nobody could say that they didn’t have their day in court,” he said.
But it is the victims and defendants that haunt me: the homeless man, who was given no lawyer and $25,000 bail for riding his bike on the sidewalk without a bell; or the 5 year old girl who had been sexually molested but her case went un-investigated.
They had no recourse. The Index is for them.
Photo courtesy of dnak via flickr