What’s So Wrong with the U.S. Criminal Justice System?


The phrase, “Equal justice under law” ingrained into the façade of the United States Supreme Court building is a very noble concept indeed. But too often, the U.S. criminal justice system fall short of this worthy philosophy, especially against the backdrop of the several miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions that have become all too common in the legal system.

The America penal system is flawed in several areas, especially in the use of plea bargaining rather than a jury trial, for settling cases; the prevalence of corrupt judges; and ineffective grand juries.

Plea Bargaining

Even though the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, however, many cases in the United States are determined by plea bargaining system. A plea bargain is a process whereby a defendant agrees to give up his right to trial and plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a more lenient sentence. Using the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing guidelines as a weapon of choice, the prosecutors coerce defendants into accepting a plea agreement even when they were innocent.

About 95%  convictions are determined by plea bargain in the United States, done on prosecutors’ terms. In The New York Review of Books, Jed S. Rakoff, a former United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York noted that “our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight. The outcome is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone.”

Plea bargain is quick, inexpensive and ensures an easy path for the government to get a conviction and help prosecutors move to the next case quickly.

Limited power of Judges

In many U.S. courts, judges have abandoned their role of honest brokers and have become subservient to the prosecutors who determines who should go to prison and, for how long. Supreme Court has recognized that ‘Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” making prosecutors the most powerful players in the American criminal justice system.

Moreover, many judges are corrupt, causing a lot of Americans to question their faith in the judicial system.

A case in point is the corruption scandal that rocked central Pennsylvania county when Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, both former judges in Luzerne County, were convicted of racketeering and other charges in 2011.

In what became known as the “kids for cash” scandal, both judges accepted a $1 million kickback from the builder of for-profit prisons for juveniles in return for routinely finding children guilty of petty and nonviolent crimes to increase the number of residents in the facilities. Read more …

Rubber Stamp Grand Juries

The role of the grand jury, in theory, is to conduct an impartial review of possible indictments to safeguards against prosecutorial excesses. However, in practice, this is not the case. Grand juries have become mere rubber stamps for prosecutors despite the provisions in the U.S. Attorneys Manual which states that: “The prosecutor must recognize that the grand jury is an independent body, whose functions include not only the investigation of crime and the initiation of criminal prosecution but also the protection of the citizenry from unfounded criminal charges.”

In a grand jury, there is no judge or defense attorney present and members only hear one side (prosecutors’ side), which according to a Huffington Post report presents “evidence as to why the defendant — no matter who it is — should be charged and why there should be a trial. It’s the reason why most grand juries across America indict regularly, repeatedly, and routinely. It’s just step one in a long road ahead that we call our criminal justice system.”

Given that mass incarceration in America is an intractable problem, major reform efforts involving a cross-section of the society is required to fix the broken system. Because the problem is so ingrained, any meaningful reform will require will, not just mere rhetoric.

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