The Failures of the American Justice System
In September 2012, Damon Thibodeaux became the 300th wrongly-convicted person in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. He was released from prison after spending more than 15 years on death row for the rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin. Thibodeaux is now 38 years old. He has received no compensation from the State of Louisiana for his false imprisonment.
By its very definition, justice is supposed to right a wrong by making victims whole and punishing and/or rehabilitating criminals. These seem like lofty aspirations, but America is a country with an expansive judicial network in place to make them a reality. Police officers at city, county, and state levels; district and circuit courts with judges, secretaries, prosecutors, and defense attorneys; state courts; federal courts; and federal intelligence officers toe the line each and every day to ensure citizens abide by the rules. When they don't, these people work together to exact justice.
Or do they move to exact revenge?
The American justice system is far from perfect, a fact to which many people can readily attest. But this fact seems to have increasingly become an excuse for careless and vengeful behavior. Those who are supposed to uphold the justice system occasionally take a criminal – or person of innocence – and brow beat them with no regard for humanity.
In 1990, a Chicago journalist uncovered torture tactics – including suffocation and electric shocks – employed by then police commander, Jon Burge. These devices helped the Chicago Police Department manipulate suspects into falsely confessing to various crimes, leading to a number of wrongful convictions - convictions that, to Chicagoans, looked legitimate. Therefore, the feeling was that Burge was dong a great job. But he wasn’t.
Numerous prosecutors, detectives, and investigators act similarly when they falsify evidence and/or perform shoddy work just to get a conviction on the books. These convictions are like gold stars that boost egos, but what do they mean for the people who expect and need justice? They mean a criminal is allowed to go free, a victim is deceived, and a person of innocence is forced to give up his life and sit behind bars.
This isn’t justice; it’s an atrocity.
If Americans can’t place their faith in the justice system, what can they believe? People who study and practice the law are expected to live to higher standards, but many – not all, but many – forget about those standards and place themselves above the law. They're hungry to prove themselves and will chase success by all means, even if this entails lying and cheating.
On the flip side are the atrocities taken against convicted criminals. Withholding food, inflicting physical abuse, and sexually assaulting prisoners is justice turned inside out. These people become the objects of cruelty and derision in a system that has stripped them of their most basic rights, even the right to be heard.
Without a working justice system in place – one that will be implicitly flawed, but still striving to service the people – crime will never stop. Organized religion works because people believe in its respective teachings and rituals. That system is also imperfect, but it unites groups and gives meaning to life. The justice system needs similar faith from people - faith that comes from being able to trust without worry for being blindly misled.
None of this is meant to take away from the many people in the justice system who unwaveringly perform their jobs in the attempt to make the world a better place. But civil servants must be held accountable for performing the same actions they swear are so detestable from criminals. Forced confessions, prisoner abuse, and wrongful convictions don’t provide justice; they muddle the system until pinpointing the real criminal is as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.