Friday, December 03, 2010

Amy Bach: Ordinary Injustice

Amy Bach's "Ordinary Injustice" is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Partially, I suppose, it's because I'm off of the horribly depressing food and drink kick I was on. And partially this was just a Really Great Book. A couple of years ago, I read Courtroom 302, which is the same genre as "Ordinary Injustice": intrepid journalist picks target in criminal justice system and tears it apart, making reader weep. Bach mentions Bogira's Chicago's courtroom, but has a larger scope in her book: how the US court system fails daily to do its job. She defines ordinary injustice as happening when "a community of legal professionals becomes so accustomed to a pattern of lapses that they can no longer see their role in them."

It's not one judge sleeping at the bench, or one public defender who doesn't even meet his clients, those these things happen, it's the whole system around the sleeping judge and the sloppy lawyer who let these things happen- either because they don't care, or because they're part of the system, too. And the people who suffer are myriad: the victims of crimes, the falsely accused, the communities who don't know how justice works, the communities who don't bleieve in justice because it's never served, the communities who see violent criminals re-released back into the streets, the communities who lose innocent family members.

America's justice system is "adversarial": trials are fought by a prosecutor (the state) and the defense attorney (on behalf of the accused). The judge plays umpire, making sure everyone stays in the lines. The accusee has rights to make sure that everyone does stay within the lines, that the playing ground is fair, etc. There are rules in place to make sure that the adversarial nature of the justice system doesn't collapse, taht the two sides don't become friendly, that the game doesn't become a scrimmage. When it does, when "collegiality and collaboration" enter the "practice of criminal justice they are in fact the cause of system failure. When professional alliances trump adversarilaism, ordinary injustice predominates." This can happen for a variety of reasons- the people involved think it will benefit the community to "speed up" the process, there is a mentality of "we've always done it this way," the court system is overburdened and underfunded, or the players are literally too friendly with eachother to be impartial. Both victims and suspects lose out here: they might not be read their rights, they might end up pleaing to something they ddin't do, they might take pleas they don't understand, they might not get an attorney, their cases might not get charged, etc.

Bach makes a lot of great suggestions on how to improve the court system, many involving helping the average person understand it more, and making it more transparent and accountable. In the meantime, I suggest not getting arrested.