CONVERSATING ABOUT WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND!
To the outside observer, the U.S. criminal justice system may seem like a fair, and simple process. This explains why it is widely believed that the state, or prosecutor has to prove that the defendant is guilty of the charged crime, and thereupon sentenced within the guidelines passed by state legislatures. The convicted person serves his or her sentence in either a county jail or a prison.
To be honest, as a Michigan citizen, I can confess that I, too, was led to believe in the fairness of the U.S. judicial system until I personally fail victim to nothing short of a mind-blowing experience inside this dysfunctional branch of government. for nearly two years I have witnessed the appalling injustice and inequality appearing in the form of eye-popping sentencing disparities issued out by judges, based not upon facts of the case, but upon career advancement. My troubling predicament makes me question the legality or fairness of the criminal convictions or sentences of many others, and I worry that this skepticism will remain within me for the rest of my life– unless reforms are made.
The simple court process and fairness I mentioned above regarding prosecution and sentencing of a defendant is in stark contrast to what really happens. Because of this contradiction, I often find myself lying down on my bunk contemplating the true meaning of justice. I recall one afternoon I picked up an American Heritage Dictionary and thumbed through the pages until I arrived at the word justice. It read: 1. The principal of moral rightness, and 2. The upholding of what is just esp. fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law.
How come when I read those two definitions of justice, the U.S. criminal justice system is the last thing that comes to mind? Moreover, how come when I think of justice, dollar signs and political gain flash through my mind? Perhaps these thoughts race through my mind because I see how the courts take into consideration the defendant’s financial status. The difference in treatment between defendants can be easily identified.
Money. Most people assume that not having enough disposable income is the only way a person can be treated unfairly within the justice system. However, there is another side to the coin. Most people don’t think that having too much disposable income can also be a major liability. For instance, if a judge sees that a defendant is well-off, he/she will use the defendant’s financial status as the main piece of evidence. Hence, being able to afford an attorney can compromise a defendant’s chances of receiving a fair trial. At the same time, having too much money can equally produce unfavorable consequences for the defendant as well. For example, judges tend to raise bond and court costs if they believe the defendant is able to afford the higher amount. For this reason, I am convinced that money is the main arbiter in determining guilt and severity of punishment.
It contaminates our justice system. But it is not the single culprit. Politics is another reality that influences how justice is meted out. This word also comes to mind when I think of the word justice because of the gigantic role it plays in the decision-making process of elected judges and prosecutors. For example, in American democracy, voters get to choose the judges that represent their district. Because of this process, I assert, judges hand down judgments with the next election in the back of their minds. It can be reasonably believed that no judge ever wants to risk upsetting the very people who decide his/her future in politics. This calls to mind a humorous, yet serious quote I recently heard in the film “The Campaign” starring Will Ferrell, that says, “There’s something you need to know about American politics; with money, nothing is unpredictable.” In the context of the criminal justice system, how a criminal defendant will be treated can be accurately predicted by the defendant’s financial worth or political connections. There are thousands of questionable agreements being made behind closed doors that cast doubt on how ‘just’ our justice system really is.
There are many publications, such as Jay Robert Nash’s I AM INNOCENT that documents just a small fraction of many guiltless men who languish inside prisons for merely sleeping with their high school sweethearts and also those who weren’t able to support child support. To add insult to injury, in many cases, these innocent or excessively punished me are serving more time than rapist and murderers. That kind of discrepancy should never happen; but unfortunately it is a common occurrence. Consequently, numerous young men’s lives are ruined. Moreover, with the overcrowding of the prison system these innocent people are occupying scarce bed space that could otherwise be filled by otherwise deserving criminals.
A recent new story of a well-heeled middle-aged man illustrates how money affects the degree of punishment in criminal cases. In this case, a rapist was convicted for repeated having intercourse with a five year-old girl. The child’s nightmare finally came to an end when she turned ten. The man was facing a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison to life due to the sickening nature of the charges. Therefore, many observers expected the man to receive a high-end sentence. He received a plea deal of five years probation.
Sadly, in a broader perspective, there are thousands of men and women serving excessive sentences due to their indigent status, or in some cases, used as pawns to make a political statement.
Since it is known that the court system and the Department of Corrections benefit from high incarceration rates, we can expect injustice to continue for many years to come.
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