In fact, if this is not you after reading this post, you should ask for your money back:
So without further adieu, here are, in some random order, 6 basic truths about the criminal justice system you won’t learn by reading mainstream media:
1. Everyone pleads not guilty.
Everyone. By everyone I mean everrrryone. You get arrested, you show up in court, you plead not guilty. Next. It’s as routine as tying your shoelaces. Even if you were caught red handed with 47 cameras trained on you, 230 eyewitnesses, 17 confessions signed in blood and the eyeball of your dead victim hanging from your mouth, you’d still plead not guilty on your first day in court.
Apparently a Google search for “man eating eyeball” returns a relevant result.
2. Not everyone who is arrested is actually guilty.
This is somewhat related to the one above and the one below. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out but you wouldn’t know it from the wholesale adoption by the media of whatever garbage is contained in police reports. Failure to understand this principle is what leads to stories that are clearly slanted with a “how dare he enforce his constitutional right?” bias.
Police make mistakes. They arrest the wrong people and discard evidence of their innocence. They develop tunnel vision. They have biases that they don’t hide. They fabricate evidence. But you’d be hardpressed to find many criminal justice stories that display even a hint of skepticism of police claims. Rather, most of them are a mere regurgitation of the allegations contained in police reports and press releases.
3. Not everyone is or should be treated the same.
Here’s a secret: those who are arrested and charged with crimes go through a rigorous screening process to determine their planet of origin. To date, each and every single person ever charged and convicted has been determined to be human. They’re people. All of them. Just like you and me. Some are worse than us, some are better than us. And we should treat them all as if they were individuals who did bad things rather than the bad things they did.
That’s why we have sentencing ranges, maximum punishments. The legislature, at least in this State, decides what the maximum punishment should be for a particular crime. A judge, either by himself after trial, or with input from both sides before trial, determines what that sentence should be. No one gets the maximum sentence before trial. No one. Because it makes no sense to. The phrase “plea bargain” has in it the self-explanatory word “bargain”. Who the hell would bargain for the maximum? No one, that’s who.
This should not be surprising. Individualized sentencing is the only fair way to sentence a person for a crime. If we were sentencing only the physical acts, without regard to the individual who committed them, we’d have no need for maximum or minimum punishments: all crimes would be punished the same way.
So when you read a news report that laments that the defendant got only 6 years in jail while facing a maximum of 20, ask yourself why. What is it about that person that warranted a lower sentence? What is it about the crime that warranted a lower sentence? Why does the newspaper reporter think you’re an idiot?
After all, there must be a reason. We don’t just pick numbers out of a hat.
3a. We pick numbers out of a hat.
Metaphorically speaking, of course. There is no sorting hat. There are just discussions about the values of types of cases, taking into account the attendant circumstances. But if were to make films of the origin stories of the “going rates” for certain types of crimes, we’d have an awful lot of ass-birthing scenes.
4. Not everyone who pleads guilty is actually guilty.
I know, I know, this is basic stuff. But can you imagine the level of criminal justice reporting if I have to tell you this?
People plead guilty all the time. For all sorts of reasons not having to do with actual guilt or innocence. Here, I’ll list a few off the top of my head:
- They can’t afford to post bond and have been in jail for as long as the prosecution is offering in exchange for a guilty plea.
- They’re covering for someone else.
- It’s a case of he-said/she-said and no one will believe what he said and he can’t testify anyway.
- Our mandatory-minimums and maximums are so outrageous and out-of-whack that any sane person, when arrested, would seek to plead guilty for as low a sentence as possible.
- It’s easier to go to jail than deal with a difficult probation officer and an unrelenting world that sees nothing but a felon.
5. The Constitution’s protections are available to the guilty and innocent alike.
I’ve tried very hard to find that exemption clause in the Constitution: the one that says that the following provisions do not apply if, like, you totally did it, dude. Alas, so far, I have not been able to find it.
The Second Amendment protects you today, when you’re law-abiding and it protects you tomorrow, when they take your right to own a gun away. The Fourth Amendment protects you today, when you’re sitting at home and it will protect you tomorrow, when your shipment of high-grade cannabis arrives from Mexico. The Fifth Amendment will protect you today when you have sex with a woman who isn’t technically physically unable to consent and it will – you know what, you get the picture. The Constitution protects you in ways you know and in ways you don’t know.
So when a conviction is “reversed” on a “technicality”, you should cheer, instead of jeer. Because the Constitution just got stronger and one day, you might need it.
6. The law is complex.
A lawyer’s favorite answer to any legal question, immediately before being punched in the face by the questioner, is “maybe” or “depends”. In fact, there’s a whole sub-industry in the legal field that is devoted exclusively to getting lawyers to the point of being able to say “maybe”. Lawyers make bank over saying “maybe”.
Here’s my bill for $750.
The point is that thousands of lawyers spend every day parsing the nuances of ridiculously boring texts to find wiggle room to convince a judge or jury that their case is different from the 50,000 other cases out there and this time it really was an anal probe so they should totally get the $4 bajillion that they’re demanding. Heck, the internet is full of lawyers and unemployed lawyers either making or defending fraudulent claims.
The newspaper ain’t going to get it right, especially if the reporter is someone who doesn’t have any understanding of points 1-6 above.
7. Shit takes time, yo.
You read a newspaper story about some guy in your town getting arrested for shooting his ex-girlfriend’s uncle’s sister’s dog and dammit you want justice. But days go by and nothing. Weeks, months and maybe a year. The paper keeps reporting delays and continuances. Maybe an op-ed in the paper about how justice delayed isn’t justice served or some such nonsense. You’re outraged! OUTRAGED!
Let me tell you something: shit takes time.
For instance, your everyday public defender in Connecticut is representing about 180-200 people at a time. On any given day, they are responsible for 20-odd people. That’s 20 stories to learn and understand. 20 allegations to digest. 20 investigations to conduct. 20 clients to track down. 20 offers to negotiate.
Maybe 5 of them don’t have available witnesses so you need more time. You don’t know when they’re going to be available so you estimate 2 weeks to get the job done. Too bad. 2 weeks from now the court already has an unmanageable docket, so you need to continue it 4 weeks.
That’s just today.
And on and on and on it goes.
Investigations take time. Negotiations take time. Research takes time.
Justice takes time.
Anyway, time’s up. Tell me what you think the media gets wrong in the comments.