September 1, 2009 6:12 PM
Ordinary Injustice: America's Judicial System Gone Awry
Posted by Matt Straquadine
Lazy or overwhelmed public defenders. Wrongful convictions. Abuse of power. Amy Bach, a former staff reporter for The American Lawyer and a Stanford law school graduate, discusses it all in her new book, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court (Henry Holt, September 2009). After spending seven years in criminal courts in Georgia, New York, Illinois, and Mississippi, she chronicles a judicial system that fails not only those most in need, but society at large.
Where did the idea for Ordinary Injustice come from?
Before I went to law school I had a [Soros Justice Media] fellowship to write about civil rights. In courtrooms, I was seeing injustice everywhere. And no one was telling these stories.
For example, I was once outside a courthouse in Greensboro, Georgia, and I saw this lawyer surrounded by people fighting for time to speak to him. He turned out to be a public defender, and he barely knew anything about the defendants he was representing that day. Inside the courtroom, people were pleading guilty without understanding why.
I remember asking him, "Is it always like this?" He told me things were fine, that they could all say they'd had their day in court. I began to notice there's a big problem of no one checking on the mistakes made by judges and lawyers. Many, many people were seeing this but no one was saying a thing.
What was it like working on the book for seven years, telling stories from around the country?
If you want to understand the justice system in America you need to get out of the law library and go to court. Had I not been a journalist before I was a lawyer I wouldn't have known the importance of going to court, but had I not been a lawyer, I wouldn't have known what to ask. I had to devote a lot of time and travel to disprove a myth: that a single attorney here or there is responsible for the widespread failings in the criminal justice system, which is complete fiction.
Can you give me an example of the failure of the criminal justice system?
There's a story in my book about a woman in Troy, New York, who is arrested for loitering on a stoop where she'd stopped to braid a friend's hair. The judge arbitrarily set her bail at $20,000, which she couldn't afford, so she sat in jail for eight days without speaking to a lawyer. Meanwhile the grandmother moves in to take care of her five kids and she might lose her job as a nurse's assistant because she's suddenly absent from work. Later she applies for public housing but doesn't get it because of the misdemeanor charge, and she has to move away from her hometown, because now she can't afford to stay. Nobody has taken the time to add up these collateral consequences.
You say these individual consequences hurt society at large. How so?
We all lose if a mother of five can't see a lawyer to challenge her bail, loses her job, and now she has to go on welfare. We lose if a good student pleads guilty to a drug charge because he doesn't understand the consequences, doesn't have an attorney, and thinks it will be better to clear up the case quickly. Now he's ineligible for student loans for the rest of his life. This stuff is happening all the time.
Each chapter of the book uses specific stories like those you've mentioned to illustrate problems with our judicial system. How did you decide which stories to include?
This was the hardest thing. I have notebooks upon notebooks filled with stories, and I spent time in communities that didn't make it into the book. I tried to find very specific stories that repeated the themes I saw over and over.
You reveal many systemic problems in Ordinary Injustice, but one common theme seems to be an aversion to change, even a pervasive laziness, within the criminal justice system.
The problem is not simple laziness. The problem is that professional allegiances often trump the adversarial system. For example, in Chapter 4 I tell the story of a prosecutor who convicts two 17-year-old boys for raping a little girl. Two decades later, DNA evidence proves the boys hadn't committed the crime, and the prosecutor tells a colleague he thinks they made a mistake. For his honesty he is hated by the other people he worked the case with. It's that kind of collusion we're talking about, people working in ways that ultimately don't serve justice, but serve themselves.
You report on deeply disturbing stories, of poor defendants pleading guilty without a lawyer or even an appearance before the judge, prosecutors refusing to press charges because the facts would be hard to prove in court. Why don't these stories receive more media attention?
I think courts are the most unexamined public institution in America. In other areas of government we track exactly how much we spend and what we get back in return. In sports, coaches track every stat in the world, then use them to address issues on the team. But no one does this in the criminal justice system. It's time to institute a system for measuring things like how many times an indigent defendant gets to speak with his attorney, or the number of arrests that turn into successful prosecutions.
Twenty-five percent of the nation's adults have a criminal record and the criminal justice system is almost completely unmonitored.
We don't tolerate this anywhere else in our country, why does it happen here?Make a comment