Connecting the Dots: The Entire Criminal Justice System Is in Need of an Overhaul

The recent in media coverage of the abuses of law enforcement and corrections department staff elicit a range of emotions, particularly among those of us working in the criminal justice system who hear about and witness these incidents on a daily basis. On the one hand, the gut-wrenching depictions of violence -- of Department of Correction guards punching into unconsciousness an already handcuffed person or of NYPD officers choking a man to death without any apparent evidence of resistance -- brings one to the edge of despair in contemplation of the devastation such practices bring to New Yorkers and their families, many of them among the most vulnerable residents in our city -- homeless, indigent, drug-addicted, mentally ill. Yet on the other hand, the sober and extensive coverage of these issues in the mainstream press gives us hope that our society, our city, may be on the cusp of demanding long-needed change.

While the media attention given to the crisis at Rikers Island and to the most recent iteration of broken-windows-style policing presents these issues as distinct phenomena, they are in reality inseparable aspects of a wider failure of both criminal justice policies and practices and the collective political and social ideologies that have over time created the notion that certain demographic segments of the human population are disposable; in New York City this underclass is clearly defined as indigent and black. While the majority of our city -- especially those of means -- has remained mostly silent, the criminal justice system has criminalized huge numbers of people, creating the impression that entire neighborhoods, and entire classes of people, are bad and beyond repair. If we keep telling the uniformed employees of the City that everyone they come into contact with is a criminal, and is of no social value, we cannot be surprised when they treat them with brutality.

Sadly, police and corrections officers are not the only players in the criminal justice system that fall into this mindset. Judges, prosecutors and court officers, along with their unions and associations have fallen prey to a culture that dehumanizes the very people for whom they have sworn to uphold justice. Although the prosecutors and judges do not decide who gets arrested, they are faced with a consistent flow of people of color on more and more minor charges and have to do their own mental gymnastics to justify prosecuting and punishing these people. One particularly pernicious aspect of this mentality is the incessant requests for cash bail by prosecutors and the perpetuation of an abusive bail bond system that both takes advantage of and fails to help most people.

Judges are indifferent to the harsh realities of Rikers Island, routinely denying defense requests to release clients who are unable to post even nominal bail. Judges shrug this off, saying there is no "change of circumstance," as if the brutal treatment of a mentally ill person locked into solitary confinement is not a circumstance that warrants reconsideration of a bail that is not supposed to be holding people in jail in the first place.

Prosecutors for the most part believe that it is appropriate to keep someone in jail even before they are convicted and many even favor this as inducement to plead guilty in order to get out of jail, thereby reducing the prosecutor's caseload. A shocking number of prosecutors are indifferent to the fact that these plea bargains can ruin any chance a person will ever have of getting a job or attending school. There are thousands of potential consequences that come from a conviction, including deportation for green card holders, loss of housing, loss of custody of one's children and other basic human needs that assistant district attorneys have blocked out of their consciousness and, when faced with the information, claim that it is not their responsibility to consider those "collateral" issues.

Our legislature continues to perpetuate laws that make the system wildly unfair. In New York, the prosecutor is not even required to give the defense attorney the police reports on the case. In many parts of our state, defense attorneys are not able to get their own client's criminal record history. Efforts to change these laws are met with adamant protests from the District Attorney's Association. Mandatory minimum sentences, increased again and again throughout the past two decades, trump appropriate and proportionate punishment and raise the price of committing relatively low level crimes beyond reason. They also force people to plead guilty on defensible cases to avoid such draconian penalties, eroding the right to a jury trial to an alarming degree.

The power to reduce charges for the purposes of plea bargaining is in the hands of prosecutors, not judges. In other words, the most experienced person in the courtroom, selected because of their wisdom, professionalism and reputation, is disempowered to make the decision that resolves 90 percent of the cases in the criminal justice system. New York State also does not have an expungement law, unlike many states such as New Jersey, so a conviction stays on a person's record for life.

If we use the information in the U.S. attorney's report and the shocking exposé about corrections practices recently published in the New York Times to try to remedy these discrete issues as aberrations, we are missing the point. We must use our consciousness of these egregious abuses to consider an overhaul of the criminal justice system at large. We must amend our discovery laws, add an expungement option, make exceptions to mandatory minimums and change our philosophy on pre-trial detention. Then we must have honest conversations about the attitudes that pervade all levels of the criminal justice system and embark on a long term project to bring an enlightened point of view into the daily decision-making of everyone in the system.