What is liberty but the right to do what ever it is you want to do, without treading upon others – it seems like such a simple concept, but what if something goes wrong? What happens when somebody breaks the sacred rules? That question is the foundation of justice.
The justice system has two functions: to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. If the system can’t convict the guilty, then criminals run free – liberty from others is destroyed. If the system can’t exonerate the innocent, than people are violated without reason – liberty from others is destroyed. It is therefore paramount to have a functioning judiciary.
But what happens when that justice system that we so rely upon is broken?
For many Americans, this is a real situation. Our justice system is overburdened and biased against those without money or time, leaving many with the choice of rotting in prison for months without a trial, or taking a plea deal.
For defendants in criminal cases, excessive detention without trial can be life changing for the worse, sometimes worse than the actual sentence they end up receiving when they do finally get tried. The vast majority of the time however, the defendant ends up accepting a plea bargain instead of taking yet another continuance, anything to avoid more time behind bars. Worse still, defendants often have very limited access to counsel if they cannot themselves afford it. While you are guaranteed the right to an attorney, the public defender system is often so overburdened that the defender assigned to you has little time to get acquainted with your case.
Over 90% of criminal cases never go to trial, defendants often wait years before their trial, many courts don’t have enough judges, and many more still receive more cases than they can process. Courts often suffer from failing infrastructure and have insufficient manpower to resolve it.
For plaintiffs is civil cases, the situation is markedly worse. Around 1% of civil cases go to trial, down from almost 20% last century. Litigants can wait years for their cases to go to trial, which by then their businesses and purposes are destroyed by the prolonged litigation. On top of this the US Discovery system, one of the most protracted in the world, allows big-money defendants to overwhelm the little guys with tons of big and only vaguely related discovery queries. To make matters worse, parties in civil cases are finding it increasingly difficult to acquire counsel, due an ever-specializing workforce of lawyers it is harder to find a general attorney to suit your needs. Around two thirds of civil cases see at least one party not represented by an attorney.
But what does this mean for we as a People?
For better or worse, we as a society depend on the justice system. We depend on it to hold those who would break our societal rules accountable for their actions. If justice fails, then there is nothing to stop those who would do us wrong.
But there is more too it then that. When justice fails, time doesn’t stop. The cogs of the great government machine turn day after day, even if its critically in need of maintenance.
Not only does America, the land of the free, have the highest prison population in the world, we also have around half a million people in prison awaiting trial, which represent around a fifth of the total prisoners. What about them? Who says we can put their lives on hold?
The seventh amendment says Americans have the right to a speedy trial. But are we really getting that right? On who’s authority is a year or more, of which many poor defendants who could not afford bail spend behind bars, a ‘speedy’ trial.
Speedy or not, we are at the very least entitled to a trial – however many defendants never get it. Facing months behind bars waiting to go before a judge, the offer of any plea bargain will become more and more appealing. Eventually, the Innocent plead Guilty – accepting years of probation, hundreds of hours of community service, anything to get out of prison.
This is not justice, this is coercion. People who would have never admitted to a crime do so under the weight of punishment before trial. It is a vicious system that targets indiscriminately.
It is not only the innocent that are affected. What about those who have been wronged? Many American plaintiffs are forced to let the one who wronged them walk away because they can no longer pay to sustain their case.
This lack of justice affects all Americans. It is our family members, our friends, our coworkers and our community members that are suffering under the burden of false justice. It is our businesses, our property, our agreements that get destroyed because we couldn’t get the resolution we deserve.
How could we let our justice system fall into such a state of disrepair?
According to the US Department of Justice, the amount of trial court judges per 100,000 U.S citizens has fallen by 23% from 13.2 to 10.2 from 1980 to 2011. You don’t need to have a math degree to parse that statistic. On the federal level, many circuit and district courts have unfilled vacancies that have persisted for some time. It has also been noted that judge nominees often end up waiting a long time for approval.
Ultimately, the problem with our legal system is neglect. We’ve failed to expand and build enough new courts to handle the ever-increasing caseload.
This is a problem we as a people need to fix. We cannot resort to fighting crime with crime – which is exactly what we’ve been reduced to – grinding people into accepting guilty pleas, grinding people into accepting settlements. The justice system doesn’t just affect the accused, it affects all of us – our loved ones, our friends and coworkers.
How can Americans enjoy life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness when the innocent plead guilty and the wronged walk away?
This article was inspired by Wayne’s encounter with the justice system
The links in the article are for your further reading and are not fully representative of the original research that went into writing it. If you have a source that contradicts a claim made in this article, let me know and I will alter the article and credit you for your contribution. Thank your for reading!