America doesn’t have any worse people than other countries, but we do have more people behind bars than almost any other country in the world. One estimate says there are about 20 million felons in the country. That includes both incarcerated convicts and those who served their sentences and were released.
That’s a lot of people, but even though arrests and convictions are startingly common, there’s still a lot of myths about how the criminal justice system operates. Here are three of the most common ones.
Justice is blind
An innocent poor person has just as much chance of getting justice as an innocent rich person, right? It’s a nice thought, but it’s not usually true.
The American Bar Association notes there are significant racial disparities in the way justice is applied. Data from the US Department of Justice shows that, if current trends continue, one of every three black men will go to prison in his lifetime. In addition, one in six Latino men are projected to end up behind bars.
Things are especially bad when it comes to the so-called War on Drugs. Available data suggests that white Americans are more likely to deal drugs, but black Americans are much more likely to be arrested for dealing drugs. That data indicates that black neighborhoods more often have drugs being sold out in the open, but it’s a troubling pattern either way. We like to think that everything has evolved and justice is equal now. The disparities look a little different than they did 50 years ago, but they’re still very much alive.
Class disparities are also still present. Someone with an annual income of $100,000 can afford a private lawyer much more easily than someone who makes $25,000 a year. Impoverished criminal defendants are entitled to a public defender, which is better than nothing. But it’s still not nearly as good as it could be, since public defender’s offices are often overloaded and underfunded.
Defense attorneys are immoral
Almost anyone can be immoral. You can have an immoral janitor just as easily as an immoral lawyer. The biggest difference is that the janitor can’t keep a guilty person out of prison, while a criminal defense lawyer can.
A lot of defense attorneys get asked questions like “How can you defend such horrible people?” That’s an unfair question which assumes anyone who gets arrested and charged is automatically bad. Some people make mistakes, while others are arguably sociopaths, but humans in general are complicated. “Defense lawyers try to find the humanity in the people we represent, no matter what they may have done,” writes one such attorney in a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s possible to commit crimes without being a villain in a comic book movie.
A Denver criminal attorney has a lot in common with a Denver schoolteacher — they’re trying to do the best they can under stressful circumstances. A defense attorney doesn’t approve of everything their clients do, but in most cases, they’ll defend that client anyway because they feel like it’s the right thing to do.
Everything is dramatic
TV shows and movies are full of dramatic denouements where the bad guy gets what’s coming to themand everything ends happily. When verdicts are read on TV shows, people often scream or faint. In reality, the judge almost always warns the people in attendance not to react loudly. If they do anyway, they can be removed from the courtroom.
Court proceedings can be mostly boring with occasional moments of suspense. They don’t unfold in real life they way they do on shows like Law and Order. Judges try to keep things running smoothly and, in most cases, quietly. Some judges run a tighter ship than others, but if you want theatrics in a “real” court setting, your best bet is watching an episode of Judge Judy.