Justice for all, I wish!

“You have the right to a fair trial.” We have all heard this phrase sometime in our lives, usually in the form of some cop television show where justice is served, the crooks are thrown away, and the good guys prevail. That is how the system works, right? I wish I could say that was true, but unfortunately, we don’t live in an idealized world of a cop show. Many people simply don’t get the fair trial they deserve. They’re needlessly punished either for crimes they didn’t commit or are punished disproportionately to the crime in question. This is a disturbing discrepancy in the constitutional idea set up in the sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution which states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” The right to a fair and impartial trial is stated in our constitution, but it’s too bad our court system has completely disregarded this.

Despite what most people think, the vast majority of defendants never see a court of law, they never argue their case, and they never exercise their right to a trial as 95% of criminal court decisions are decided by plea bargains (Lynch, Cato Institute). They were never proven guilty, they simply pleaded guilty to the crimes they were accused of, and despite some people’s optimism, I find it highly unlikely that the law is accusing people of crimes with 95% accuracy. The reality is that most defendants can’t afford a lawyer, more than we care to think. The Department of Justice estimated that a minimum of 60% of defendants can’t afford a lawyer and as such, the burden of representation for these people goes to public defenders, a group of civil servants who are overworked, underpaid, and are unable to maintain their duties, thus ensuring that the defendant is at a disadvantage with or without legal counsel. The public defender is unable to provide proper quality counsel with his or her massive work load. In 2007, there were 947 public defenders’ offices in the U.S. with the average full time attorney in these offices working a median amount of 82 felony non-capital cases, 217 misdemeanor cases and 2 appeals cases. To put this into perspective, there are 15,000 public defenders handling cases with a median load that prevents them from doing their jobs effectively for over 240,000 people. (Langton and Farole, Bureau of Justice Statistics). It shows too, as the estimated rate of innocents locked up in prison ranges from between 2-10% of the prison population of 2.3 million people, meaning that our criminal justice system has locked up somewhere between 46,000 to 230,000 innocent people (Grisham, Chicago Tribune).

The horror of this is there haven’t been a lot of proposed solutions that won’t have some degree of passionate and fiery partisanship, and it is understandable that many people feel strongly on this issue. Most of my writing has been direct and confrontational on many subjects, consistently so, but this time, I am a bit more inclined to err on the side of restraint. There are those who argue that this is the inevitable result of the drug war that prioritizes conviction over justice; to a degree, I find myself agreeing with this. The amount of drug busts reached a high level of 1.6 million in 2017 with the percentage of charges involving possession only being reported to be at 85.4% (Forbes and Drug Policy. Org). I don’t want to say we should legalize every drug under the sun, but the amount of times the courts are filled to the brim with drug cases for people who are sick and addicted is too much to ignore. What I propose to this issue is not meant to excuse drug-related behavior, nor is it to encourage the act of drug use. What I am proposing is solely for the purpose of getting these people out of a flawed and weak criminal justice system that won’t care about them and only cares about putting them in prison with flawed and overworked defenders. Instead of throwing those who possess drugs in prison, only possess, we should be fining them and begin to revamp treatment programs. These people are sick and they are filling the court system to the maximum. They aren’t criminals- they are people who need help like any other sick person. We can’t abandon them.


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Conor J. Kelly was the Opinion Editor for the Lorian and a prolific staff writer. He graduated from Loras College in April of 2021 and is now pursuing his master's in public administration at the University of Illinois, Springfield. His new work can be found on The Progressive American substack.

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