Our Criminal Injustice System

Our Criminal Injustice System

Getting accused of a crime is very expensive. Don't do it.

There is a huge difference between being accused of a crime and committing a crime.  That should come as common sense, but for some reason, it needs to be stated.

Police arrest people.  That’s one of the things they do.  And to be fair to the police, they often don’t have all the facts.  In theory, it’s better to get someone who is potentially dangerous to society into a judicial system capable of examining the available evidence and making a determination of guilt, and of course setting the wrongly accused free to return to their lives no worse for wear.

Except that’s not how it works.

Being accused of a crime is very expensive.  And if you can’t afford it, you’re in trouble.  The police will take you to jail where you will sit for hours upon hours waiting for them to get their paperwork together.  Some clerk might decide to bump your charges on a whim; perhaps they don’t like your face.  That charge you got written up for has now become aggravated.  Why?

Why not.

Then, after being denied any kind of sleep, you go through this assembly line they call magistrate where the state reads off whatever the clerk charged you with, and without so much as a hint of evidence, decides how much you have to pay to be able to return to you your job, get your car out of impound, what have you.  And if you can’t afford it, you lose your job, and you’ll have to pay storage to get your car back.

All this without a conviction, without a trial, and most likely, without any evidence.

Here comes the best part.  If you can’t afford thousands of dollars for a defense attorney, you get a public defender who will represent your case without ever looking at it.  You will be asked to accept a plea deal for a crime you didn’t commit.  You will not have an opportunity to confront evidence against you, and you will not be able to cross-examine any witnesses.  In reality, you will sit in jail for months waiting for a speedy, public trial.  The time you wait for a hearing will end up being longer than the sentence you would have otherwise served.

I was accused of a crime, once; it cost my family about $2500.  I was lucky.

And no, I didn’t do anything wrong.

The role of a public defender is often misunderstood.  Many people want Justice to be hard on crime, and the mentality is that those who are guilty don’t deserve representation.  The problem with this line of thinking is the question of how one determines guilt.  And for too many, the act of being accused is enough.  So, I’ll say it again: being accused of a crime is not the same as being guilty of a crime.  The role of an attorney is not to ‘get one off,’ but rather, to ensure the accused get the voice they deserve, to be able to confront the evidence against them, if there even is any, to make their case, and in the event of a wrongful arrest, to be able to go home.  In short, to ensure their civil rights aren’t steamrolled by the system.  And if you’re an innocent defendant who can’t afford several thousand dollars for excessive bail and attorney fees, a public defender is your only hope against a system designed to secure a conviction regardless of the truth.

Except it doesn’t work that way, either.

Throughout the US, public defenders are overworked.  Presently, the American Bar Association recommends the maximum case load of an attorney to be around 150 cases per year.  Some think this is too high, in fact.  For public defenders, however, you will typically see caseloads of 500-600 per year.  They don’t have the time to sit down and talk with their clients, to review any evidence, or basically anything.

In the US it costs, on average, about $31,000 each year to incarcerate someone.  Given the state of our criminal injustice system, it’s not hard to imagine some bulk of the inmates in American penitentiaries are either wrongfully accused, or excessively penalized because they couldn’t afford an attorney with the resources to stop the steamroller.  Add to this that 95% of all convictions are plea bargains in many of which the defendant is promised less time than it would take to give them a trial, and we have an incarceration factory.

Some researchers put the wrongful conviction rate for death row at 4.1%.  Given the level of scrutiny in death-row cases, it’s likely that number is much higher for less serious offenses.  It’s safe to assume that a significant portion of wrongful convictions come about as a result of inadequate defense, spawning from the same overworked public defenders.

Why does it make more sense to incarcerate innocent defendants than to hire more public defenders when the cost of only two inmates will pay more than one public defender’s salary?

Michael Patrick Lewis is a teacher, and bestselling author of Edge Of God, and Preferred Rewards.  You can also find him on Twitter @fakeMikeLewis.

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  1. Roger says

    Did the author speak with any current or former public defenders before writing this? There are a lot of mistakes, and false statements here. Not well researched at all

  2. Andrea G says

    Mr. Lewis has written an accurate article. If you live in a state where your assets are seized based on what they decide to charge you with, the justice system has effectively made defense impossible. And it is defense because you are ‘assumed guilty unless you can afford to pay to prove your innocence.

    Further, the article fails to mention civil forfeiture laws which give incentive to various justice system jurisdiction to seize all assets when they charge someone with a crime. Not only do these government agencies have the ability to keep and use all funds, properties & any other individuals properties they ‘associate’ with the person charge, now a separate civil forfeiture case must be paid for and fought to potentially regain properties. The property is not automatically returned if and when you can prove you were innocent.

    Well written. Thank you.

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