The Unjustice System

Idealist Opportunity -- Wanted

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Recently I spent some time serving on our local grand jury and found the experience extremely frustrating. The judge who theoretically oversees the process was present for the initial selection only and gave the group of potential jurors an impressive peptalk. He assured us that although the defense side of the case would not be present, the prosecutors would be fair and we could depend on their sense of justice. And most significantly, our contribution was valued and important.

So far, so good. I was somewhat looking forward to the experience, as were many others. Jury duty is the most potent point of contact that an individual has on the operation of their local government, even in spite of trends that have diminished the jury´s powers.

The reality of the process has left me wondering. The first detriment is the pace. We were presented with dozens of cases each day. The administration was focussed on being done by 4PM when, we were told, the building was locked up and we wouldn´t want to be there. Shooting from the hip was not what I anticipated but it seemed to be expected that this short shrift of serious consideration would produce fair indictments. I´ll let you decide as you see the results.

Secondly, there was a significant difference in the quality of the prosecuting attorneys and police officers. An occasional well handled investigation highlighted the dreary performance of the many. It was depressing enough to see how inadequate were the resources of the system to deal with poor people making stupid mistakes. But it was horrendous to tally up the genuine system atrocities at the end of each day.

Thirdly, indictment required only 7 of the 9 sitting jurors; a set of backup jurors would already have opted to excuse themselves from the case before deliberation began. The story of a lone juror holding out for fairness is only for trial juries. Unfairness reigned. Prejudices that would be disallowed, challenged, or at least disavowed, if exposed in the courtroom were much in evidence.

LastStraw Typical of the incredible miscarriages in the jury room -- when I challenged one of the prosecuting attorneys over his right to characterize a young woman witness with sneering remarks about her sexual history, and her welfare status, he initially backed off. Within five minutes of his embarrassment, he reversed his position again.

He defended his return to prejudice as representing his chances of gaining a conviction in the courtroom.

Apparently to be a credible witness, one must not be on ADC nor have sexual needs indiscreetly.

The fact that the opposing witnesses had criminal records as adults failed to dislodge his opinion of her credibility.

Not even the logic of her story would budge him.

This from the authority figure in the room representing the justice system; the one who was charged with giving us the benefit of his expertise and presenting us with his recommendation of the conclusions we should come to, always with the caveat that the jurors could make up their own minds... of course. The clear intimation being that his interest in handling the case was seriously diminished if we asked him to pursue a course that was "unwise" in his opinion. The likely result would be nothing like the intent of the grand jury´s wishes.

I found some police officers´ lack of interest in, and sometimes open hostility towards, victims and witnesses to be a source of unbelievably poor performance of duty. Failure to take pictures of victim´s injuries, failure to show up to testify, failure to search for the weapon, aggressive handling of volatile situations clouded the information we had to work with. In one case the officer dismissed the victim as "drunk" without any evidence and ignoring the obvious fact that signs of confusion could have been due to the fact that the victim was bleeding from a head wound that later required a half dozen staples. Did the officer´s snide comment about the victim´s personality being "annoying" influence jurors´ attitudes, leading afterwards to the remark from one juror who had voted to dismiss the charges that these "rednecks give the town a bad name."

Particularly distressing was the pervasive pattern to judge the women by middle class morals. Any sign of sexual impropriety was an automatic justification for public castigation. A rape victim who had stupidly gotten involved in known drug areas, was considered a liar and criticized for ceasing to resist although she had tried until after being stabbed with a screwdriver in the head and chest. Another jeans case! A woman who was 8 months pregnant was reproached for not running from the fellow who´d mugged her friend. A woman, who was being harassed by a jealous former lover, was discounted because the age of her youngest child might be inconsistent with her fidelity to her husband, currently in jail. LastStraw

Within a period of a mere few days, I witnessed nearly every abuse I´ve ever read about in the justice system. The injustice stories were not isolated, the reports were not exaggerated; if anything, they were understated. It was the positive experiences that were isolated.

On that positive side, nearly alone but oh so significant, was the case that demonstrated that the power of the jury to judge the law, as well as the events and circumstances, is alive, if not well. This is a crucially important power. In principle this is the most potent tool that citizens were granted by the designers of the system, but it´s been almost effectively denied by the officialdom of the system over the last 100 years. Before that time and all the way to colonial days, this power was used to defend the press when battling corruption in government and to invalidate runaway slave cases.

In this case, a young man driving some friends home, through a holiday crowd and commotion, in the shadowy, ill-lit hours of early evening, had hit a jaywalker who´d walked into the front corner of the car. In a panic, the young driver left the scene. Within the hour, he´d turned himself in at the police station. The law was clear, but the jury decided its application in these circumstances was counter to the intent of the law. After assurances that their decision would not prejudice the victim´s medical coverage, the jury dismissed, that is "no-billed", the charges.

With this picture of the justice system, where do you start, what sort of model can we imagine to fill the substantial list of unmet needs?

While standing in the courthouse security check-in area, I noticed a poster displaying a chart of the organizations they considered to be within the system. In among the branches normally seen in textbooks, were a couple that were interestingly unexpected. Both were women´s groups. Both were focussed on helping victims. Both were now receiving funding from grants and hence were considered part of the system. Two more levers to move the system, toward equity.

But the totality of victims in this process is much more extensive, judging by the courtroom scenes. From the insanity of jailing an environmentally concious university instructor for having a backyard habitat with hedges over six feet tall, to case after case of poor people succumbing to frustration. Anyone tempted to dismiss those basically convicted of being poor and hopeless as being a moral problem should take into consideration the fact that the damning images and information we receive to convict them is colored in distasteful ways by vested interests. The highly fear-charged testimony from inadequate public servants and the intimidating reports from organizations supported by corporate investments now earning government dollars by supplying prison facilities obscure the possibilities that we might see these people as deserving better.

LastStraw It is to big business´s benefit to have a large prison population and, surprise, the proportion of the American population in prison exceeds the proportion in any other country in the industrialized world. The reality of incarceration flows from the failures of the courtroom scenes and again women´s situations are particularly inhumane, being a growing segment of the poor and hopeless while being represented in the media as enviably situated.

Despite the growing feminization of poverty, the ratio of male-to-female in the prison population has remained steady over a long period of time and the profile of the female offender has similarly remained the same: largely young, underprivileged segments of the population committing some combination of victimless crime, property crimes and other less serious crimes. (For specifics, Women in the Criminal Justice System by Clarice Feinman).

Although the more remediable profile and lesser crimes would seem promising indications of potential improvement, about half of the women in prison have been there before. What´s both hopeful and discouraging is the fact that there´s recent research indicating that something is doable but the news gets no attention. LastStraw

At a women´s conference on community and shelter issues (see Sheltering Ourselves: Women´s Learning Exchange), a young woman researcher presented the data on a prison in Germany where women prisoners with no violent history were allowed to keep their children with them fulltime in the prison. The recidivism was effectively zero. Nothing like the fifty percent here. Imagine the impact of such a reduction here.

Part of the picture there is the German social services network, but how much harder would it be to rig bits and pieces to accomplish the support process for these needed cases than to live with its absence; using grant money, the quirky, adhoc networking of independent, interested women creating the waste-free, hierarchy-less, most curiously effective structures... maybe co-ops, maybe not-for-profits, maybe alliances.

LastStraw Other areas of government make alliances with independents too. The possibilities for more are not so unlikely. Look at the Department of Agriculture´s scheme to encourage self-built homes for the rural poor as an example of a viable, though unpublicized, predecessor of the cities´ Habitat for Humanity. In their alliance, there are regional quasi-government orgs issuing grant money to local teams consisting of contractors, social services and financial guidance staffers who find, organize and shepherd groups of a half dozen families at a time through the process of building their own homes. Using 65% owner labor and reduced rate mortgage money, each small team makes its living ending homelessness for a half dozen families at a time.

Although the size of the impact on the whole problem of homelessness may not seem like much, the return on investment is a win-win-win. By contrast every other current approach to the homelessness problem, either leaves someone in the hole or stalls while the suffering continues interminably and the greedy and aggrandizing make themselves empires. The self-build program may not be perfect but it is honorable and solid.

Visualize a similar approach at Justice; networks of independent local teams making their living supporting sheltered mothering experience as the formula for crime-free lives.
For all of us.

LastStraw Revolution

Opening the discussion...

To begin, we can share strategies to cushion impacts, modify the system´s resources, identify needs, find remedies while we change gears.

Send responses, questions, anecdotes, suggestions to the editors. We will gather and post them here in a future edition.


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