By Robyn Short
We often hear the word “justice” thrown around in the media in response to crimes. Those who have been injured by the crime often say they want justice. The prosecuting attorney looks to the criminal justice system to hand down justice for the victim. The defending party looks to the criminal justice system in hopes of receiving justice. Those who are convicted of crimes but who are actually innocent seek justice. With so many people on seemingly different sides of a conflict seeking justice and talking about justice within the criminal justice system, it certainly makes one stop and ask the question: What is justice?
In seeking justice, our criminal justice system asks the following three questions: What laws were broken? Who broke them? How do we punish the offender? When a crime has been committed the state, not the victim of the crime, seeks justice. There are only four outcomes of the American criminal justice system:
1) The person charged is actually guilty and tried by the state, found guilty and receives a sentence for the crime.
2) The person charged is actually guilty and tried by the state, found to be not guilty and is released from any accountability for the crime.
3) The person charged is actually not guilty and tried by the state, found to be guilty and receives a sentence for the crime.
4) The person charged is actually not guilty and tried by the state, found to be not guilty and is released from any accountability for the crime.
In all four cases the criminal justice system holds that “justice” has been served because a “just” process occurred. However, in examining each of the four possible scenarios, is justice actually served?
The person charged is actually guilty and tried by the state, found guilty and receives a sentence for the crime. In this scenario, “justice” is perceived to be in place because the guilty party is deemed guilty and will receive a punishment for the crime. The punishment, not the process, is what the public most likely perceives as justice. In the United States, our judicial system takes punishment very seriously. We punish more people for more crimes than any other country. Dr. Michael Gilbert, interim chair at the University of Texas San Antonio stated in a lecture at Southern Methodist University, “If punishment worked as advertised, we should have the lowest crime rates among developed nations. We don’t.” Instead, we have the highest crime rate among developed nations with England falling second behind us at almost half the crime rate as the United States. According to NationMaster.com, the United States leads the developed world with 11,877,218 crimes per year and the United Kingdom with 6,523,706.
If justice equates to punishment, then punishment is not a deterrent to crime—as anyone who has ever been grounded by their parents, received a school detention, received a ticket for speeding or served prison time for a crime knows. In the “guilty party is found to be guilty” scenario, who received justice? The state? Perhaps because the criminal justice system effectively incarcerated, penalized or fined the offending party. Did the victim receive justice? Most likely not. No part of the criminal justice process takes into account or offers any restorative measures for the victim. In all actuality, the victim may have been re-traumatized or further traumatized by the process. Many individuals of violent crimes choose not to report the crime because they cannot endure the trauma brought on by the criminal justice process. Did the offending party receive justice? The sentencing laws in the United States are tremendously extreme and allow for much circumstantial execution. For example, aggravated robbery (robbery with a deadly weapon) affords the sentencing jury/judge a range of five to 99 years of prison and/or a $10,000 fine. A person who was present at a murder can be put to death by the state for supposedly having knowledge of another person’s intent to commit a murder—something that is almost impossible to prove and yet people are indeed executed under law of parties in Texas (Cleve Foster being the most recent law of parties execution in Texas). With that much leeway in sentencing, one must conclude that no, justice was most likely not experienced by the offending party. When a juvenile in the United States can get locked away in prison for forty years for robbery, and when a person who did not commit a murder can be executed for the someone else’s crime, justice is not being served by the criminal justice system.
The person charged is actually guilty and tried by the state, found to be not guilty and is released from any accountability for the crime. Very little needs to be said for this scenario, when people who have committed heinous crimes walk freely in the world, the public remains at risk. We will never know for a fact whether Casey Anthony and OJ Simpson were truly guilty of their crimes, but I suspect no one but those two people and their defense teams would say justice was served at the trials. And though I suspect both OJ and Casey were happy to leave the courtrooms without handcuffs around their wrists, whatever illness, wrong thinking, lack of judgment—call it whatever you want—that got them in that scenario in the first place, remains untreated and unaddressed. When guilty parties are found to be not guilty, justice is not being served by the criminal justice system.
The person charged is actually not guilty and tried by the state, found to be guilty and receives a sentence for the crime. According to the Innocence Project, three to five percent of incarcerated individuals are innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, that translates to an astonishing 50,000 to 125,000 people wrongfully imprisoned. Many innocent people serve their full sentence, are executed for the crime for which they were wrongfully convicted or serve two–three decades in prison before having a conviction overturned. Of the 303 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, the average length of prison time served by those exonerees is 13.6 years. That is a long time to sit in a cage and contemplate a crime committed by another person.
When innocent people are forced to spend their lives incarcerated, their families, the families of the victims, the defending attorney and his/or family and the community at large do not receive justice.
The person charged is actually not guilty and tried by the state, found to be not guilty and is released from any accountability for the crime. When a person is charged with a crime, their reputation in the community is forever changed. Years are spent in county jail awaiting trial. Thousands, and sometimes of hundreds of thousands, of dollars are required for adequate defense (hence the number of wrongful convictions). Jobs are lost. Family relationships are destroyed. Friendships are destroyed. Health is severely jeopardized due to the poor living conditions in county jail, lack of proper nourishment, violence and extreme stress. Lives are ruined. Upon release, the person—who in all actuality has be victimized by the judicial process—is released to resume their life as a free person. However, the damage the process caused leaves that person anything but free. When innocent people are charged with crimes and found to be not guilty, justice is not being served by the criminal justice system.
Which brings us back to the initial question: What is justice?
Robyn Short has ghostwritten numerous books and is the founder of goodmedia press and goodmedia communications. She is a student of A Course in Miracles, a self-study system of spiritual psychotherapy. Robyn is a passionate believer in peace and social justice. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Auburn University, a Masters of Liberal Arts from Southern Methodist University and will graduate with a Masters in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution from Southern Methodist University in 2014. Robyn is the author of Prayers for Peace, and the forthcoming children’s book Peace People, co-authored with Nanon Williams. Robyn is available for book signings and to speak on topics of peacebuilding and nonviolence, especially as it relates to these core issues. Contact Robyn by email.