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September 1, 2009 6:12 PM

Ordinary Injustice: America's Judicial System Gone Awry

Posted by Matt Straquadine

Ordinary Injustice - Jacket Image 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?

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Great interview and a fascinating topic. . .I have never heard the problems with the courts framed this way. Sounds like the makings for a classic of legal writing.

Thank you for finally publishing a book and making it known to the public that is honest and shows our very much needed audit of the criminal justice system. I hope this book gets promoted not just on this website, but on all major TV channels, like CBS, NBC, even CNN, etc. Congratulations to Amy Bach for her courage and pursuits.

This book deals with the most important issue that is never included in general public discourse and debate- the creeping corruption and abuse of power in America's criminal justice system. Once a citizen is arrested/indicted, if they arent multi-millionaires- they are subjected to a draconian system of unchecked power and abuse that the media and other watchdogs and lawyers are too lazy, unknowledgable, indifferent and intimidated to decry. Without the Rule of Law, we become like the second rate corrupt democracies around the world that extinguish our torch of liberty and equal justice.

In Oct of last year we went to court involving a easement issue. At the last minute we were notified that we would be getting a family court Judge, from a different county 100 miles away. It so happens that the Judge was from the exact town, pop. 3,000 as the person that had a boat on the dock that we were trying to remove. We are appealing the case, but are very concerned about about having an Appeals Judge unfairly influencing our case. How can we be sure the Judges are not corrupt in the outcome of our case. We consider our court ruling to be a definite conflict of interest.

A woman after my own heart! Even though I am not a lawyer or a journalist, I have observed the same kinds of situations mentioned in the book. These observations and stories from the news have led me to want to become a lawyer, and I'm still struggling to make that happen. I am not fooling myself into thinking I will change the world, but I might change the world for one person.
I will definitely purchase this book!

Thank you so much for the truth. The truth will set you free and because of people like you, others can be let free.

I like the way that this interview (will read the book soon) takes a broad view and notes the disparate impact on civil justice. Great interview. Thanks.

These injustices sound so pervasive and if the lawyers, the very defenders of our freedoms,are a large part of the problem, whose going to fix it?

The article is excellent. I will get the book. However, "Ordinary Injustice: America's Judicial System Gone Awry," applies to our ENTIRE judicial system, not just criminal. Wrongful suit or abuse of power once one is involved in court abound, & it also affects most those in need & society at large- as much or more than criminal injustice (though any deliberate injustice at the hands of the legal system all by itself SHOULD warrant a criminal indictment & conviction)! Amy Bach says she's noticed that no one is telling the stories re abuse of power in crimiinal courts, that defenders often don't know facts of case well enough, that media & public ignore, etc. what is going on, etc. ALL the charges she makes vs the criminal system apply equally to the entire legal system! Why wouldn't they- it is all part of the same system & each part operates in mostly similar manner?! Those with less money &/or influence have far less chance of winning or defending themselves. No one really monitors unfair judges & lawyers as the system is ripe for abuse because again same issues- "professional allegiances, systemic problems, etc." The article ends asking why we don't tolerate such abuse of any other public system (& one comment says it will cause us to become 2nd rate democracy)but our legal system?
Much has been written about how excessive legal costs raise malpractice premiums, promote defensive medicine, encourage lottery mentality due to high awards, etc., yet tort reform is not a visible part of health care reform proposals. An Illinois paper said they "import lawsuits & export jobs." A Florida paper said 1/3 of its small businesses incur excess costs & 1/10 have/will go out of business due to excess legal costs.
But some stats show that
divorce & family courts form the largest % of civil cases. It has become big business & it impoverishes entire families or more often one spouse relative to other. It hurts already troubled kids BIG time. In Brooklyn, NY a female judge just started ordering mulitple night overnight visitation with father who had 3 yrs supervised vistation due to criminal arrest (plea-bargained down to endangerment- another misused court practice) for sexually touching 2 of 5 kids. She said she'd handcuff & jail mother if she didn't comply! Fact that one child was so upset he didn't eat entire 5 day visit made no difference, or that therapist's letter said kids' too traumatised to have overnights, or fact it is illegal to change status without a hearing! The court-appointed lawyer for the kids twisted much data, though did say kids cried lots when visiting. The appellate court denied all but one of mother's appeals. Letters & calls to several chief judges, the police (told to call them by abuse hotline- so much for their help) yielded comments like-"it's up to the judge." I said not even Pres. Obama has a right to order kids into an abusive situation! Also, the father hasn't paid child support for 8 months even though he can well afford it. Lots has been written (plus nat'l conferences) re cases that are similar in many respects.
One comment said they hoped Bach's book gets promoted by all major TV channels-I agree, but want it to include sustained nat'l discussion re establishing checks & balances on entire legal system TILL IT'S DONE!
I've been requesting this for years- Google my name to see- Susan Titus Glascoff (I'm in 6 well-respected Who's Whos- including Who's Who in America, due to lifelong public advocacy, masters- Health Advocacy & Math, Exec. Dir. Nat'l Advisory Bd. to Nat'l Coalition for Family Justice)

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