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The criminal justice system should be about equal justice for all, and not a perpetuation of an underclass

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When I became a public defender lawyer after two years working with a corporate law firm, I went from a high-rent office two blocks from the White House with a fancy desk to a non-descript office that was literally across the freight railroad tracks.I had a burning desire to do criminal defense for indigent clients, and I was finally doing it.

With each new theft and felony conviction, a person becomes all the less employable, all the more likely to rely on the welfare state, and all the more tempted to eke out funds from criminal activity when employer after employer see their conviction record and refuse to hire them. It does not work to reply with such pithy retorts as “You do the crime, you do the time.” For one thing, plenty of actions should not be criminalized in the first place (prostitution and gambling, for instance), and plenty of actions that can get convictions call for prosecutorial discretion not to prosecute (for instance, refusing to charge an agitated and otherwise harmless person with disorderly conduct). For another thing, convictions bring not only the potential of jail time, but also potentially high barriers to job and educational opportunities, immigration benefits and other collateral benefits. Additionally, many innocent people get convicted, as we full well know from the stories of the many death row inmates later exonerated by DNA evidence. Many innocent people plead guilty, when their chances of acquittal look bleak and their risks of infinitely worse punishments look too risky. Many innocent people drain their bank accounts to be represented in court. Many guilty people get sentences that are entirely disproportionate to their actions and who they are, either because judges and/or prosecutors are seeking “uniformity” in sentencing, because of mandatory minimum sentences, or because the judge and/or prosecutor would not pay full time and attention to the unique circumstances of the defendant and his or her crime, lest they not finish in the courtroom before dinnertime.

In criminal court, the haves are able to pay qualified criminal defense lawyers. The have-nots are able to obtain public defender and court-appointed counsel (plenty of whom are excellent). Then there are the working poor who are too poor to afford a qualified lawyer and too “rich” to qualify for indigent defense counsel.

A disproportionate number of non-white, poor, and undereducated people get prosecuted for non-white-collar crimes. Regardless of the culpability of those being prosecuted, the criminal justice system in the United States helps perpetuate an underclass with fewer job opportunities due to their criminal records, and consequently with more limited financial resources to help provide their spouses and children with educational, financial, employment, and societal opportunities. The psychological and developmental impact can be profoundly negative on children whose parents get convicted, let alone whose parents get long prison sentences.

Before the year is out, please visit a criminal courtroom while it is in session, take a tour of a jail (or visit people in jail) or both. With our having elected representative government, it is critical for every voter to have at least an initial understanding of what happens in court and jails, rather than merely seeing them from the outside.