6 Reasons the US Justice System Is Anything But Just

Editor’s note: This Care2 favorite was originally posted on July 17, 2013. Enjoy!

The populace’s shocked reaction to the 2013 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 U.S. 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.

Photo Credit: nameofphotographer


Michelle Spradley
Michelle Spradley1 months ago

The US justice system is imperfect, but it is better than any other country, at least in art because it is the most open. What do we truly know about the justice system in the UK, or any other country for that matter?

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 months ago

The justice dept. is much more fair under Sessions than under Holder!

Aaron F
Past Member 2 months ago

Thanks for posting and for the 20 points towards feeding kittens...

Peggy B
Peggy B3 months ago


Carl R
Carl R3 months ago


Amanda M
Amanda M3 months ago

We've seen #1, #4, and #5 in our own lives (long story). These reasons and many more are big reasons why my Rule #31 is "Systems only work for the wealthy and well-connected!" And Robert G, if I could send you a truckload of Green Stars for your comment, they'd have landed in your lap already! You nailed it and then some! And it's not just the offender who gets branded for life-the lives of their families get ruined as well when word gets out and they're branded pariahs because of the "guilt-by-association" BS that everybody seems to live by. And there are no support groups for these family members to help them cope with the trauma and stress of such a situation-NONE. Sickening!!!!

Anneka S
Anneka S3 months ago

Thanks for publishing this. I find private prisons particularly sickening.

Marty P
Marty P3 months ago

6 Reasons? There Are Probably One Hundred Reasons.

Peggy B
Peggy B3 months ago

Why are we allowing it? There are lobbyists that campaign for some of these so why aren't we lobbying the government not to. Better yet start voting for less corrupt politicians . Why aren't trump voters demanding he keep his promise to drain the swamp instead of filling it up?

Kathryn I
Kathryn I4 months ago

With the ignorant, racist Jeff Sessions taking up space and air within the DOJ, this Country has no "justice." He's another one who must GO!