In light of Michael Gove’s criminal justice reforms, it’s worth taking a look at how criminal justice and criminal justice reform operates in the United States. Andy Hatfield, a lawyer in America, offers this perspective.
Few places felt the turbulence of criminal justice reform in 2015 more than my hometown of Albuquerque. Rolling Stone published a front page article about police brutality, and a Department of Justice investigation ultimately came to the same conclusion: there was a systemic problem with officer violence. Before anyone could really do anything about the problem, a serial felon murdered a police officer in the line of duty. Before anyone could completely process that, another serial felon murdered a child in a road rage incident. Before the road rage murder was even able to reach the presses, a third serial felon murdered another officer in the line of duty that same day. Advocates for reform now had a much harder task convincing the public that offenders needed less jail time and officers needed scorn and derision. And, at least as far as I can see, nothing has really changed in the criminal justice system.
Left unresolved is the crucial question: does our criminal justice system need reform? Very few love our current system, but even fewer agree about how to change it. While I am unable to remain impartial from inside the system, I believe that my perspective and experience as a District Attorney may help move the ball forward in the cause of reform. Broadly speaking, I think there are fixes for both police officers and attorneys that can both serve our communities and protect our citizens.
Police misconduct is hard to miss when recent news reports contain videos of officers shooting a citizen 16 times in the streets of Chicago. This incident comes on the heels of eerily similar cases in Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland, and on and on. But what do these stories have in common? On one level, they have the sickening cadence of armed white police officers shooting unarmed black civilians. On a more important level, they tell stories of officers assigned to communities they are not from and do not understand.
Officers put their lives on the line every single day to protect the communities they police. It is truly a life-and-death question, then, when an officer must interpret subtle gestures and make sense of a chaotic scene. Police academies teach how to shoot, drive, write reports, and so on; but it is understanding the culture of their assignment that makes officers able to effectively serve and protect it.
Everything from body cameras to longer police academies will surely help keep more white officers from shooting more unarmed black civilians. But as long as exclusively white police officers from the suburbs police urban areas, there will be misunderstandings. My suggestion for those marching in protest against police brutality, then, is simple: join the police. Police departments may not bar you on the basis of race. If you are from the community that you police, you are much more likely to appropriately process ambiguous information you find. Correctly processing that ambiguity, in turn, will lead to fewer mistakes and fewer unarmed victims of brutality.
To be clear, I do not absolve the officers who shot unarmed civilians of any race. As with any group, some officers are bad actors. But the straightest path towards resolving racial bias is knowing people of different races. Some people will accept their badges and guns and become tyrants, no matter the context. But an all-white police force is the best bet for producing and maintaining the racial conflict that boiled over in 2015.
Turning to the attorneys within the criminal justice system, it would be inconsistent with my role as an advocate to pass dispassionate judgment on our role in the criminal justice system. Especially in rural areas, assistant district attorneys and public defenders maintain perpetual mutual combat like Rock’em Sock’em robots. Still, I think John Oliver’s blistering segments miss the mark. Prosecutors generally do not leap from bed in the morning to violate the civil liberties of ethnic and religious minorities. Public defenders do not typically pull all-nighters before trial. As always, the truth is more nuanced than talking heads would have you believe.
To contextualize the issue, consider the scene of a Boston courtroom. In a setting with an assistant district attorney, public defender, court reporter, and janitor, the attorneys in the room receive the lowest pay (if you are wondering how this could be so, among those who graduated from law school in 2014, 60% of law school grads ever found work as attorneys). Both assistant district attorney and public defender jobs typically attract very young attorneys that have no experience and left law school without any real education about the actual practice of law. Supervisors tend to either be true believers or those that could never make it out-neither being a demographic that lends itself to effective teaching or supervision. Turnover ravages every district attorney and public defender office I have personally seen. Ultimately, any commentary castigating one while canonizing the other will not ring true because the groups are more similar than they are different.
Given that background, is it any surprise that attorneys within the criminal justice system make mistakes, even egregious ones? Ultimately, both sides can do more justice with more knowledge. A 5 day or even 30 day sanction for a meth addict will not help anybody; meth’s damage can take years to heal, and the addict will be back on the streets using and committing crimes before his or her body can even begin to detox. The cycle of violence in a battery on a household member creates bizarre behaviors in both victims and defendants.
Developing an awareness of these issues above and beyond the legal training received in law school will help both advocates work towards a solution that works for everyone. Not every accused is a bad guy, and not every client is a paragon of excellence. No one wins when someone accused of domestic violence beats the charge then kills his partner or a drug addict gets sent to prison instead of treatment.
While I do not believe any suggestion I could make would solve all the problems, I also do not agree that America’s criminal justice is in total system failure. The overwhelming majority of police officers, district attorneys, and public defenders act appropriately in the overwhelming majority of cases. Still, 2015 has given us enough kinetic energy to make some important reforms, and no one wins when we lose those kinds of opportunities.