However, criminal justice systems in various countries have made harmful and embarrassing errors. Instead of punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent, at times innocent people have been punished for crimes they did not commit. Other individuals have spent years in prison, only to be released before completion of their sentence amid serious doubt as to whether they were guilty and their conviction was warranted.
This has led to people concluding that “justice for all” will never be; some even become cynical or feel concerned about injustice only when it touches them. We can better appreciate the challenges of a criminal justice system by considering some causes of injustice and obstacles to justice. Also, we will note how complex the problem of obtaining full justice is.
1. No one law for all
One major problem of the criminal justice system is the fact that, today, how much justice you get may involve who you are or how much you have.
In some places “justice” can depend on a person’s ability to hire expensive lawyers. True, sometimes the court supplies able lawyers to defend those who cannot afford such. But these lawyers are often overworked or are not available for all types of cases. Consequently, a gangster or dishonest businessman who can pay for an elaborate, technical defence may “buy” what passes for justice.
Even if convicted, punishment may be determined partially by a person’s financial or social standing. In some cases of “white-collar” fraud involving millions of dollars a relatively light sentence is given with the explanation that the criminal has been punished with loss of prestige.
Yet a newspaper editorialized: “Any prominent defendant can plausibly argue that public exposure and contempt are sufficient retribution. By that standard, it is only the least favoured members of society who would receive the highest penalties, since they cannot claim loss of status. ‘Equal justice’ is more easily proclaimed than practiced.”
2. Unfair sentences
Even if the law is clear and it applies to all, rendering just sentences can still be a problem. The New York Post reported that the: “Attorney General criticized the nation’s system of sentencing criminals as slow, uncertain and unfair, and said it ‘has the attributes of a lottery.’ . . . In one federal judicial district, 71 per cent of all convicted defendants go to prison while in another district only 16 per cent are imprisoned if convicted of similar charges, he noted.”
How to deal with such disparity is the big question. You may have heard the suggestion that there should be a set mandatory sentence for each crime. For example, anyone who steals a car gets a certain fine or length of imprisonment; the person who commits arson must serve a fixed number of years in confinement; and so forth. While such a judicial system might sound simple and fair, would it really be just? For example, should the first-time offender who is sincerely repentant receive the same sentence as a brazen criminal? The problem’s perplexity underscores that if there is to be justice for all, wise and fair judges are needed.
However, the fact is that in many places the “criminal system of justice” is not really just. A national council on crime reported: “Those caught up in the system are overwhelmingly the poor, the lower class, members of minority groups, immigrants, foreigners, persons of low intelligence and others who are in some way at a disadvantage. Those who have a good chance of escaping the system are the affluent criminals, corporate criminals, white-collar criminals, professional criminals, organized criminals and intelligent criminals.
Because of corruption and incompetence in high places, untold numbers of people have suffered. They have been wrongly confined to asylums and prisons or have even been sentenced to death. Women have been deprived of their husbands’ financial support. Children have been taken away from their parents. Entire estates have been lost to the rightful heirs.
As an illustration, you may have tried to get some legal matter settled. Perhaps it was obtaining certain travel or family documents or a permit to make alterations on a building. You met all the legal requirements, such as fulfilling the building code. But did you get fair, just treatment? Or, where you are, does justice in such matters depend on “who you know” or the bribe you will be willing to part with to gain faster services. The is no reason to believe that the criminal justice system is any better.
For instance, do you know of cases in which a prominent lawmaker, judge or politician accepted bribes, peddled his influence or broke the law to enrich himself or advance his career? Yet did he receive just punishment? Or was his punishment much lighter than a person from a minority group might expect for a comparable crime? To bring it ‘closer to home’, if it were revealed that an influential person in your community defrauded the government of, say $50,000, do you think that his punishment would be equal to that given to one of your workmates or neighbors if he stole as much money?
5. Unreliable witnesses and police
According to Judge Rolf Bender of Germany, in 95 percent of all criminal cases, statements from witnesses are decisive as evidence. But are such witnesses in court always reliable? Judge Bender thinks not. He estimates that half the witnesses who appear in court tell untruths. Bernd Schünemann, professor ordinarius of criminal law at the University of Munich, Germany, made a similar observation. In an interview with Die Zeit, Schünemann confirmed that statements of witnesses are the principal—albeit unreliable—form of evidence. “I would say the typical reason for errors of justice is that the judge relies on unreliable statements of witnesses.”
Witnesses are fallible; so are the police. Particularly following a crime that causes public outrage, the police come under pressure to make an arrest. Under such circumstances, individual policemen have succumbed to the temptation to manufacture evidence or to force a suspect to confess. When the six men who were convicted of the Birmingham bombings were released, the British newspaper The Independent carried the headline: “Conviction of Six Blamed on Corrupt Police.” According to The Times: “Police lied, colluded and deceived. In fact in some cases, prejudice may make the police and public suspect individuals of a certain race, religion, or nationality. As U.S.News & World Report comments, solving a crime can then deteriorate into “an issue of racism rather than reason.”
Those who have tried to solve some of the more glaring public injustices have learned that this is easier wished for than done. Among solutions that you may hear from any man on the street are:
‘Get the leaders to be honest and just; then the rest of the people will be just.’ ‘Make sure the courts enforce equal sentences for all, not letting the gangsters or politicians get off easy.’ ‘See to it that the poor have adequate legal help so that they get justice.’ ‘Increase the punishments for accepting bribes so that those in authority will not be tempted to pervert justice.’
But injustice is an age-old problem. Who can say how many different human governments and reform movements have tried to end injustice? Yet it is still with us. Recognizing this historical fact can be a safeguard for us. How so? It can protect us from getting quickly swept up in another human effort of some sort to change the situation, an effort probably not much different from what has been tried before.
Over the centuries sincere men and women have struggled to decrease injustice and increase justice. Reform movements have altered political structures. Legal procedures and court systems have been revised and reorganized. Still, injustice remains!
Who would deny that “justice for all” is a fine principle? But, being realistic, we know that this will not always be the case.