TROY DAVIS: What's Next?
Reflections on criminal justice from an old timer
When asked to write a column of my reflections in The Scales of Justice I wondered what an old attorney like me would have to say that others would want to read. I have been practicing law in the criminal justice system for quite some time and have seen just about everything there is to see. At times I have felt like the character Gulliver, in Gulliver’s Travels, who constantly finds himself shipwrecked in the strangest of situations .
I initially considered writing about the latest case which has caused the spotlight of media attention and more than a few pundits to get on their soapbox, that being the Troy Davis case. By now the dust has settled somewhat. The pundits have found another cause of “injustice” to champion and the criminal justice system continues to roll on with all its beauty and flaws. There is a lot to say about the Davis case but it is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues that surround the justice and injustice that occurs within our criminal justice system. Therefore, I will leave that discussion to death penalty advocates and opponents and those who advocate reform of the process for obtaining and use of eyewitness identifications. The issues of our criminal justice system run deeper.
What I have found to be most common to those men and women who I have seen entangled in the criminal justice system over the years is a complete unwillingness to take responsibility for their lives. Far too many criminal defendants don’t even take responsibility for their own case. Either through ignorance of the law or an unwillingness to devote the time to prove their innocence (by the way aren’t all criminal defendants innocent), defendants sit on the sidelines and expect their attorney to work some magic that allows them to get out on bond and ultimately get probation whether they are charged with armed robbery, rape, or murder. Attorneys are practioners whose expertise should be navigating the criminal justice process and counseling their client on the best options under the circumstances. The burden still remains on the defendant to know their case, research the law within the limits of a woeful jail law library system, and communicate with their attorney concerning the strategy to be used to try to get the best possible result out of the situation. Too many defendants sit back wasting time and not taking responsibility for their case and ultimately their lives. I cannot count the number of times I have heard “this is my life” by a defendant. Well, if it is your life, you should be doing something to control the future direction of your life. Yet too many defendants don’t take advantage of the limited rehabilitative resources offered in the county jails.
There are countless stories of how the system wronged a defendant either because of an inattentive public defender, a heartless prosecutor, or a merciless judge. Where are the stories of how I wronged myself? Where are the stories about how my bad judgment got me into this mess where others control my life? Most importantly, where are the stories about self-rehabilitation that tell the tale of realizing that no one else has responsibility for or control over my life? Usually the only time you hear such stories is from a person who brags about their past drug dealing and high rolling. Even while attempting to tell the tale of their “rehabilitation” they glorify their past life and attempt to justify it as a necessary means to an end.
Too many criminal defendants enter the criminal justice system having dropped out of high school, commonly around the tenth grade. If they dropped out of high school in the tenth grade then surely the circumstances that led them to abort their education occurred much earlier. How can the criminal justice system be expected to reform and rehabilitate the very youth that our educational institutions have discarded? Once in the criminal justice system these young men and women expect the same pass on responsibility that they have received throughout their lives. They do not want to suffer the consequences of their misguided judgment and bad choices. They want, and almost expect, time served and probation or the absolute minimum punishment no matter the offense. However, politicians have responded to a community tired of armed robberies and child molestations by increasing the mandatory minimum penalties year after year. Advocates of prison reform complain about over-crowed prisons and jails filled with non-violent offenders, yet fail to point to viable alternatives for the now non-violent, but future violent offenders.
While we debate the merits of the Troy Davis execution I find myself asking what’s next? Will the debate lead to a serious discussion, not only about the death penalty and eyewitness identification, but also about the core issues that plague the criminal justice system. If so, that dialogue must include a discussion of why we are failing our youth. Failing them by ignoring the problems that cause them to drop-out of our educational system; failing them by allowing them to drop-out in the first place; failing them by creating such low expectations of what is expected of them; failing them by giving them a stern warning that “the next time I see you in this courtroom it won’t be as easy” while allowing it to be easy in the first place possibly because there are just too many similarly situated defendants coming through a system that is ill equipped to adequately deal with them.
The views expressed in SATOBSAT’S Travels are those of the author and not those of The Scales of Justice of The Scales of Justice, LLC.