Likely there is a percentage of readers of this blog who believe that the way I write about the criminal justice system is biased, unfair, skewed, or maybe just flat wrong. Criminal Justice, the problems of Mass Incarceration, and Wrongful Convictions are not things that obviously touch our everyday lives. Rather, our criminal justice system is tucked away in courtrooms across this country, witnessed by few observers other than the people caught up in the legal proceedings themselves, the attorneys, and court staff. Mass Incarceration is practically hidden as the practice in the United States is to place prisons in remote locations, far removed from our everyday lives or experience. It’s all too easy to forget they’re even there (which I can’t help but think is part of the intention behind prison placement). And wrongful convictions, other than making a headline now and again, or more recently in true crime podcasts, or documentaries, remain the “dirty little secret” of the criminal justice world, as Laura Caldwell states.
The issue of wrongful convictions in particular stands in stark contrast to the innumerable forms of propaganda promulgated through the media, schools, the current administration, and even our own idealism that only criminals need fear the criminal justice system. The criminal justice reality is much different:
The criminal justice system in the United States today bears little relationship to what the Founding Fathers contemplated, what the movies and television portray, or what the average American believes. – Jed S. Rakoff
Most of us know the obvious truth that what we see on TV likely isn’t real, even in this day and age of “reality TV.” We all know or have heard the term “Hollywoodize,” where TV producers and movie directors won’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Many of us grew up with television shows like The Wire, Hill Street Blues, Columbo, TJ Hooker, Matlock, Law & Order, and, more lately, CSI and its spin-offs – shows that almost invariably depict a criminal justice system working seamlessly, if unconventionally, and armed with the best in technology and scientific application. And where the technology might be wanting, for example in the case of a Matlock or Murder She Wrote, the brilliant minds of the investigators solve the crime in the end, and we can all feel safer. And now this word from our sponsors.
It’s very easy to mistake these simplistic TV portrayals of the gears of justice as truth (or even something close to the truth). As if TV policing and courtroom dramas somehow give us a glimpse into the real legal world, we idealize and oversimplify in our minds what is actually a very complex, convoluted, overwhelmed, and often downright confusing combination of human relationships, human action (and inaction), and (especially) human flaws. But even taking into account the fact that, yeah yeah, we know TV hollywoodizes things, and we know that sometimes innocent people get convicted – still, we say, the criminal justice system works – our Constitution protects the legal process, criminal justice is simply applying a series of laws, most of which haven’t changed for hundreds of years, and to call any of this into question seems almost un-American.
My point here in this post is that even if you don’t want to believe that things are as bad as I make out, a simple read of virtually any of the cases listed here: http://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/ or discussed in any of the loads of books on wrongful convictions will show that the system is far from sound. By just looking at one story, you will be confronted with the fact that the judicial system has drifted away from its moorings that our Founding Fathers hoped to guarantee through our trial process.
So I encourage you to take a few minutes and listen to Greg Taylor’s story, and ask yourself, how could this have happened in the justice system that you thought we had? Because the reality is, you can take his one story and multiply it by ten, and by ten again. You’ll soon see that no matter how much faith you want to place in our system, the number of mistakes that occur is inexcusable. Injustices that destroy lives happen too often to be merely brushed aside, or absorbed as a mere statistical inevitability. It’s time to make a change. It’s time to speak up on behalf of those victimized when the system gets it wrong, however often you think that occurs.
My hope is that raising awareness of wrongful convictions and the need for criminal justice reform will not only help those already wrongfully convicted to get the assistance they need, but will also, perhaps, enable others to protect themselves from future wrongful convictions.
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