Regarding Justice

Regarding Justice

A Chapter by Paul
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thoughts on American justice system

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Regarding Justice


I have been thinking about justice. I have concluded that any system of justice had to have started with a plan for fairness. I know this seems naïve. I assume that many individuals had to be convinced to be part of a system of justice. I assume that each had to be convinced that there was some benefit for them. There must have been a need to convince the multitude that laws and the enforcement of laws was necessary; to keep the peace. I can accept that brute force was all that was needed to make individuals conform to many systems in history: how mates were chosen, food distributed, land distributed. I can see the physically powerful getting what they wanted, how they wanted. Doesn’t a system of justice have to have a different premise? When it comes to justice there seems to be an inherent need for fairness. Why even have a system of justice if the powerful can do as they please?

 Even if someone is purposely trying to make the system benefit one group or individual, there must be a need to, at the least, give the appearance that the system is fair. The justice system in the United States purports to have been built on the idea that the system had to treat all white males the same. The system had to dole out justice fairly no matter who was involved. We can argue that women, and males who did not own property, were not properly considered; that was a sign of the times. But the idea that every landowner would get the same treatment is necessary to the original plans of the founding fathers. Today, thankfully, you do not have to be a landowner, or a white male, to expect to get your day in court. So, when you get your day in court, is it the same for everyone?

The next sentence will not be shocking to many people but why isn’t it shocking? A person’s economic standing informs how justice is served; and there is a line of poverty in justice that does not conform to the accepted poverty line economists use. People who are poor, below the poverty line, are at a disadvantage in court; this is strangely accepted in most circles. People who own homes, or people who can rent a property without government assistance, are not considered poor. People who have a steady source of income are not considered poor. However, many people in these situations are living paycheck to paycheck. A major disruption in income, for even a month or two, would cause a crisis. They are not below the accepted poverty line yet they do not have the means to attain the same justice as citizens with disposable incomes. They do not consider themselves poor but they live a life of poverty in the justice system. This poverty line for justice is anyone who cannot pay for legal counsel without going into debt. And we know that proper legal counsel is tantamount to getting a fair hearing in court. No matter how hard a public defender works, they cannot give clients the support that someone gets from having hired a diligent lawyer.

Before we can even look at a day in court, we need to look at how individuals get involved with the justice system. We need to look at why the police were called and how this initial interaction was handled. When you look at resisting arrest, and excessive force by police officers, I would venture to say that this has more to do with economic status than race. People in the lower income economic strata have many more encounters with the police than those in the higher strata. The consequences of these encounters are also more intense. A DUI for a person with financial security represents an inconvenience. For a person living paycheck to paycheck, it is life altering. 

I do not want to pretend that there are not racist people in positions of power. I want to be clear that most of the legal problems, that people of color face, are due to their economic status. Having to deal with a person in power who has a cultural bias or is racist, only exacerbates these legal problems. Wealthy people of color are not being regularly accosted for minor and/or non-violent offenses.

If we could magically remove all elements of racism from every police force in the nation, I am confident we would still have too many incidents of police using excessive force. I am confident that most of these incidents would involve people from the lower strata of the economic system, therefore disproportionally people of color. Police officers are expected to solve problems. This is not their job. Their job is to keep the peace by arresting people who are breaking the law. From the poorest American to the richest, we all depend on the police to do this at some point in our lives. They keep the peace by maintaining law and order. At some point, however, many people from the lower end of the economic scale are going to be confronted by a police officer and wonder if they can get a fair hearing in court. They are going to become more agitated as they realize that the officer is not going to “cut them a break”. The officer is going to be made more uncomfortable by being put in a situation where he is judge and jury; knowing that the arrest itself is the be all and end all for this individual. The agitation on both sides increases, the resistance increases. We have seen consequences of this many times. Again, my point here is that getting a fair shake in the justice system will be most notably connected to financial status. How is this tolerated?

I believe it is tolerated in America because few citizens will admit that they are poor or on the cusp of being poor. A person who owns a home, no matter how precariously, counts themselves above non homeowners. A person who makes rent every month, no matter how precariously, counts themselves above those living in government sponsored housing. A person living paycheck to paycheck has a difficult time seeing themselves in league with those who have no paycheck. And most Americans have a difficult time imagining themselves in any precarious, financial state forever. I would tell these people that they are not technically below the poverty line. Then I would have to tell them that they are below the fairness line. They cannot afford the kind of representation that will give them the same standing in court as a state prosecutor or a corporation or a wealthy individual.

Wealthy people rarely run from the police; they don’t have to. Wealthy people sometimes are disrespectful of police officers. They can do this because they know that they will have some power over this police officer when they have their day in court; and the police officer knows this. This often tempers a police officer’s behavior as well. This is human nature. I am not faulting police officers for the survival instinct of recognizing this unfairness. I do think that police officers should think this through, for the sake of fairness. I think they should make a conscious effort to treat every person like someone who is going to have an exceptional lawyer when they get to court.

If your life is going to be substantially altered for the worse, you are more likely to flee the police or resist them once detained. You know that you cannot afford the best lawyers. You know that if you lose your license you will lose your job. The consequences are dire. Any animal will react physically when they are put in dire circumstances. If you look at incidents of excessive force by police, I am sure that these will disproportionally involve people with no paycheck or living from paycheck to paycheck.  Wealthy animals do not feel the need to run from the police. Even if they try to run, they have a confidence that it will be fixed somehow. This is not fair.

Who disagrees with any of the statements I have made?  That financial standing is important to your treatment by police and by the courts. I would venture very few would; and yet how many would stand up and say that our system of justice is economically biased?

It is my understanding that Martin Luther King Jr. believed that alleviating mass poverty was pivotal to his movement. If my history is correct, he was beginning to turn his focus more to poverty in America. I think that this would serve two purposes. As people of color are disproportionally represented below the poverty line, then he could seek relief on this front, while also giving poor white Americans common ground with the black and Hispanic poor. Add to the poor citizens of all races the paycheck-to-paycheck citizens of all races and you have a huge segment of our country. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immediate aim may have been to alleviate the day to day needs of poor people but I am confident he saw further. He had to know how important it is for every American to have the same standing in the eyes of the law. While this may not be as immediate as feeding and housing a family, it would certainly make sure that families could maintain their status. That an interaction with the law would not profoundly alter the life of a family. 

Once in court the unfairness continues. A prosecutor has the resources of the state behind him. A person with disposable income can hire the best lawyers. They will expect more respect from the court because of this. Those below the fairness line must make use of a public defender or hire their own lawyer. Most likely they cannot afford to pay enough for the lawyer to give this case his/her undivided attention and resources. If one lawyer is outclassed in court, then the judge and the jury are swayed. They are swayed not necessarily by the merits of the case but by the presentation of the case. How is this acceptable? We have seen this play out in many criminal and civil cases. “Lawyer up”, is the call. Lawyer up? This is our justice system? Get the best debater, the most ruthless litigator, and you win? I know I am not saying anything shocking but again I ask, why is this not shocking?

People below the fairness line from the majority and minority races need to see their common cause. The rule of law is the glue to a constitutional democracy. Faith in the fairness of the justice system has to be a priority. I am not sure where to start but I am certain that judges and juries have to recognize a disparity in counsel. The merits of the case have to be the focus of the judge and jury. How do we do this? I do not know. How do we convince every citizen that when they get to court it is not going to matter whether they have an expensive lawyer on their side? I do not know. I do know that we have to work to make that blindfold of justice more than a symbol. Is it absolutely necessary for a judge and jury to see a defendant in person? Is it necessary to hear the voice of a lawyer, to know his/her style, in order to render a fair decision? Is it fair for one side to be able to call many paid experts to make their case? In this day and age, I think that we are capable of creating a setting that can minimize bias. I believe systems are always happy to maintain the status quo. This does not need to be understood as some evil plan; it is just the easy way. We need to acknowledge that the system is not fair for all people. Only then can we make strides to correct this. I believe that we will know that we have accomplished something when all Americans are confident that their day in court will be fair, regardless of their bank account.

 



© 2022 Paul


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Added on March 19, 2021
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Paul
Paul

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I am writing in the Mid Atlantic area of the United States, mostly non-fiction at this time. I am a song writer as well. http://songsongsongs.com Also of interest could be- http://bookstore.trafford... more..

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Regarding... Regarding...

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