Justice: Not as Seen on Television

Network TV shows present a highly biased view of the criminal justice system. In shows like Law and Order, Chicago Police, and others, the police are portrayed as noble and heroic figures rushing to thwart nefarious criminal elements with an undying passion, driven by a sense of love for the community. Prosecutors are cast as dedicated justice advocates whose desire to convict is driven by an overriding sense of responsibility to do right by the victims on whose behalf they are working.

The consequences of these kinds of one-sided portrayals are that the general population is lulled into a sense of complacency through the lens of fictionalized accounts. The media then becomes an agenda setter, giving credence to a flawed system and the failed polices that keep it functioning.

Perhaps on some level there is truth to some facets of these stereotypical roles that are pounded into the minds of the American TV viewer. It is not, however, the image of the justice system I see in my day-to-day work as a public defender.

What I see is a system where prosecutors seek jail time for crimes like twenty-dollar petty thefts committed by people who are transient, thereby criminalizing poverty and in many cases drug addiction.

I see police who use archaic and unknown vehicle code laws to pull over car drivers and bike riders alike. They then cast normal movements and interactions as suspicious so as to create probable cause to search people. These interactions, no matter the demonstration of authority by the police officers, are often construed in police reports as casual interactions, the likes of which you may enjoy with a friend at brunch, or a neighbor you see in the morning while picking up the Sunday paper. Each police report feels meticulously crafted (or edited?), using all of the required buzzwords necessary to protect the officer when the inevitable motion to dismiss is filed. In this way, the police reports read like re-runs of the same commercial - thoroughly vetted before making it to your TV screen, every word chosen carefully to get the court to buy what the officer is selling - and so long as the right words are used, the court very often is a happy consumer. Officers, even when they've invented new facts on the stand and have glaring omissions in their reports, are seen as credible.

Take, for instance, an incident in Las Vegas where a police canine mauled the infant child of an innocent man. The officers understood the potential for fallout and immediately sought to streamline the story they would tell.

Other officers soon started talking about how best to write reports on the incident and the likely fallout.

"All that happened was totally solid. Just a s----- set of circumstances that all rolled into -- what could've been much worse. So just get that whole timeline out there," one officer told others.

This same respect is not extended to those accused. Any inconsistent statement is sure to be met with at least suspicion, if not some form of punishment.

If you happen to be a person who has ever committed a petty theft or if you happen to have been caught with drugs, no matter how little the amount, and if you were placed on probation, then you may expect your contact with police to be anything but casual, since as part of the terms of your probation, the District Attorney's Office or the court will likely require that you have a search and seizure clause which allows officers to search your home, car, person or storage locker at any time with or without a warrant. For those who are transient or addicts, this results in an unfortunate cycle whereby some officers might recognize the individual as someone who is on searchable probation and may routinely harass and search them, finding the objects of their addiction and keeping them perpetually trapped as victims of the criminal justice system.

Not surprisingly, network television doesn't show any of this. The defense of the indigent commands so little respect that these shows very often even contain dialogue that disparages the work of public defenders by suggesting that we are not real lawyers.

There is not a single show on television that even attempts to dramatize the life of a public defender. The closest we have gotten has been some of the recent episodes of The Good Wife, in which Alicia Florrick represented clients at bail hearings before a judge who was much more interested in the quantity of cases called in at any given time than he was in the quality of the representation the clients received. If only the show runners would have taken it a step further and showed Alicia receiving plea offers that were wholly unreasonable, representing her client at trial and then being hit with a trial penalty from the judge at sentencing because her client chose to proclaim her innocence and exercise her right to trial by her peers...

The work of a public defender is part social worker, part lawyer, part investigator. It has all of the elements of drama that could make for riveting television. I suspect, though, that the subject matter would be too real for television. Such a show would require viewers to suspend belief in a justice system helmed by always-dignified judges, caring prosecutors, and honorable officers and see it for what it is -- an archaic system that criminalizes poverty and punishes those who live on the margins, a system where those of privilege are not required to have any understanding of the lives of those they jail.

In lieu of increased respect on network television shows, I would accept a reality show in the vein of Undercover Boss, in which every judge, officer, politician and prosecutor would have to pose as a poor or homeless person and experience what it's like to interact with the police, to spend nights in jail or on the street, and to face condescension by those in power. I would love to see if such an experience would change not only the views of the participants but of the general public who remain willing contributors to a costly and ineffective prison industrial complex.

A criminal complaint typically reads "The People of State X vs. Y." You and I are counted among "the people" the state (prosecution) represents. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are satisfied with the representation we are receiving, or if we all need to push for a new vision of justice.