The criminal justice system is, for the most part, an adversarial system—and should be. I’ve worked in criminal justice all my adult life – over 40 years – for both the prosecution and the defense. I believe that experience allows me to make some observations.
When I worked as a police officer and later as an investigator for the district attorney, I had one goal: Solve crime and put people in jail. What was missing was that I knew little or nothing about the individual I was pursuing. Sure, I knew a crime had been committed and sometimes I knew why; but seldom did I know much about the individual charged. To be honest, I really didn’t care—they were just a number and I moved on to the next case.
In later years, I became a legal investigator and, because of my background, focused on criminal defense investigations, working for criminal defense attorneys and their clients. In this capacity, it’s my job to know the most intimate details of the accused’s background. I’ve met family and friends and often spent a lot of time with the accused. I’ve learned that everyone is different, with an individual background and life history.
Yet as I look at the system, it seems to treat everyone alike, and many prosecutors and defense attorneys only want to fight. The result is an unfair administration of justice. I’ve with worked clients who’ve committed heinous crimes. There are many that deserve lengthy prison sentences to protect the public; I have no problem with that. Some are innocent. Then there are those who, while maybe committing a crime, were simply acting stupid or careless. Those are the people I worry about. The system seems to treat them all the same, and in so doing it becomes a mill. They are just caught up in it.
I once worked for a district attorney who was aggressive and tough, but when he encountered a troubling case, he would ask the defendant’s attorney to bring his client to the office so he could talk to them (safeguards were put in place so the substance of the meeting could not be used in the prosecution). I sat in on many of those meetings. The focus was not so much on the crime, but on allowing the district attorney to understand how that individual got to this point in life. The defendants could personally express themselves, and the district attorney could gain some insight, as a human, into the people he was prosecuting. The accused became more than just a number on the docket. It didn’t always work, and seldom did someone just get their case dismissed. But it allowed the district attorney and the defense attorney to have better informed discussions about the outcome of a case. I believe justice was better served.
The point of my missive is that while the defense attorney must zealously defend his or her client, and the district attorney must zealously prosecute criminals, there is a place for middle ground and communication. This goes for both sides. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s our system and is probably the best in the world. The result of middle ground work can only be a better, fairer system. I believe we owe that – both the defense and the prosecution – to the people we serve.