Perhaps the biggest misconception about our criminal justice system is that we are all presumed innocent, and that this presumption is really hard for the government to overcome. One may offer justifications for why our criminal justice system is so large. One may have theories about why certain populations are disproportionately affected. Nevertheless, we believe that no person ends up convicted of a crime, and locked behind bars, without going through a process that ensures a just result. The presumption of innocence is at the heart of our democracy, as are the constitutional protections that force the government to prove that a person no longer deserves that presumption.
The reality is, our system could not be further from that ideal. People are not protected when they are charged with a crime. Instead, they are deposited onto a legal assembly line that whisks them from accusation to conviction. Rather than taking the time to understand the individual and tailoring a just outcome to the circumstances at hand, the criminal justice system views people as case files to be quickly processed and disposed of.
Criminal justice in America is a long, vast conveyor belt. Vulnerable people are dumped onto it at the beginning. By the time they reach the other end, their lives are shattered beyond recognition. The general public is taught that there are rules that govern how a person proceeds through the process. These rules are designed to slow the conveyor belt down. They create opportunities for people to get off the conveyor belt. They ensure that no one reaches the end of the conveyor belt who did not belong on it in the first place.
In reality, the rules are ignored. Rather than presuming innocence, we assume everyone on the conveyor belt deserves to be there. We resent having to use any more resources than are absolutely necessary to get them to the other end. The goal is to do so as quickly as possible, and the rules get in the way. So we figure out how to get around them. If this gets the accused through the conveyor belt more quickly, the ends justify the means.
Why do so many criminal justice professionals go along with this? How have the men and women who are tasked with administering justice in our courts come to participate in a practice that is so inconsistent with this ideal? Until we answer this question, we cannot begin to truly transform our criminal justice system. The answer is “culture.”
Rather than embracing the presumption of innocence, America’s criminal justice culture assumes the criminality of those accused. It dehumanizes them, driving those who administer justice to devalue the dignity of the people their decisions impact. Safeguards designed to protect the individual are therefore devalued. Speedy convictions and harsh punishments are prioritized. This culture shapes those in it until they act in ways contrary to the ideals and principles at the heart of our democracy.
Due to the pressures to get through cases quickly, to appear tough on crime, and to adhere to our nation’s increasingly punitive culture, many prosecutors come to see their role solely as protecting society from the lawbreakers they charge—even if they have to ignore the rules, cut corners, or ignore exculpatory evidence to do so. With increasing frequency, the public is becoming aware of cases where prosecutors saw constitutional safeguards as pesky obstacles to be circumvented, so they doggedly worked to engineer convictions. It has been estimated that between 2 and 10 percent of people in prison were wrongfully convicted, meaning America has between 46,000 and 230,000 innocent people behind bars. Countless others were over-punished for mistakes they made. Prosecutors frequently pressure defendants to give up their constitutional rights and plead guilty, to avoid the risk that the defendant will be treated substantially more harshly. As prosecutors are acculturated to believe that the accused is a villain and the punishment is deserved, they come to see hallowed principles of procedure as irritating technicalities. They lose little sleep if they have to disregard the appropriate process to ensure the desired result is achieved.
Judges face their own pressures to keep the conveyor belt moving along. They have to manage heavy caseloads without allowing a backlog to develop. Litigation is time-consuming and expensive. So judges face subtle—or not-so-subtle—pressure to be efficient. They are also often sensitive to strained court budgets. These pressures frequently cause judges to prioritize processing cases over providing individualized justice. There is little time to get a full picture of a person and really understand the context of a case. As a result, it is not uncommon for judges to aid the machinery of injustice in an effort to continue operating smoothly. Lawyers who cut corners are rarely chastised, while those who are too litigious are often met with scorn.
But it was neither my experience with prosecutors nor with judges that inspired me to study culture as the primary culprit in shaping America’s criminal legal system. It was watching what happened to men and women who were tasked with defending the accused in some of our nation’s most dysfunctional court systems. The defense attorney is the advocate who is supposed to zealously fight for the accused. The person facing a loss of liberty should be their only concern. The defender must ferret out violations of the process and correct them. They must challenge abusive prosecutors and judges. They are the last line of defense for the individual who is facing the power of the state. They are the force that is expected to ensure the conveyor belt encounters friction. And plenty of it.
However, this is a vision of the defender that the current legal system finds pesky and does not tolerate. Defense lawyers face tremendous pressure to go along with the status quo. They are expected to help with the processing of cases. The system encourages them to join forces with prosecutors and judges in the effort to grease the wheels of the machine. They are under-resourced and overwhelmed. Early in their careers, even the most passionate defenders will get beaten down. It is not possible for a person to withstand an entire culture by themselves.
You could walk into any courthouse in America and find a roomful of criminal justice professionals who have become resigned to a system that would shock those who are untainted by this culture. For the most part, these are well-intentioned people. They got into criminal justice because they wanted to make a positive impact on the world. But they were unprepared for the culture that awaited them.
This lesson could not have been more strongly reinforced than when I brought my children to the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, where I began my legal career. We had just spent the morning visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We began our tour at the bottom level and journeyed from the early days of the transatlantic slave trade to the emancipation of enslaved people in America. We were emotionally drained and decided to return the next day to see the rest of the museum. After lunch, I decided to take the kids to see one of the courtrooms where I used to practice as a public defender. We walked into courtroom C-10, where “first appearance hearings” take place. I knew many of the people working in the courtroom that day. I knew the judge. I knew most of the clerks who were handling the paperwork. I knew the defense lawyers. While I did not know the prosecutors working that day, I was sure I had known many just like them. These were all well-intentioned people. None harbored any conscious animosity toward the men who would be brought before the judge that afternoon.
Soon the clerk started calling cases. One by one, men were brought before the judge. All of them were Black. They each had their hands cuffed together and attached to a chain around their waists. Each case was resolved fairly quickly. All were relatively minor charges. After about half a dozen cases were called, Lucas, my 10-year-old son, turned to me and said, “Daddy, this is just like the museum.”
A room full of criminal justice professionals had become used to something that a ten-year-old child understood was more akin to slavery than to justice. Lucas was troubled. He was confused. He understood the scene unfolding in that courtroom belonged in a museum documenting our tragic history of racial oppression. Not in a sanctuary of justice. No one else was troubled. An accepted narrative that casts those accused of crimes as subhuman is the only explanation for how judges, lawyers, and courtroom administrators could become desensitized to injustices that even children can recognize.
Lucas’s question made me think of an example from a Spalding County, Georgia, courtroom where sixteen people lined up in dark-green jail uniforms, some in shackles, prepared to admit guilt and forgo a trial. The presiding judge was Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. He was eager to dispense with this lot of cases. There were more waiting to be churned through. He quickly had them acknowledge the rights they were giving up and pronounced sentence on each. He then dismissed the group and moved on to the next batch of inmates. Americans may believe that every person is entitled to their day in court. But, in Judge Caldwell’s courtroom, every person is entitled only to a mere moment in court. And even that time is shared with fifteen others.
Excerpted from Gideon’s Promise: A Public Defender Movement to Transform Criminal Justice by Jonathan Rapping. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.