Is justice for sale?

Money, Crime, NakedLaw, Opinion, Rights

“[T]here is one human institution that makes the pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. That institution…is a court.” – Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held in the historic Gideon v. Wainwright case, that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who can’t afford to pay. The decision expanded (or in many places created) the need for public defenders, which had previously been rare.

Fifty-three years later, after decades of war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies, America’s prison population has increased more than tenfold and 80 percent of criminal defendants can’t afford to hire their own lawyer.

A defenseless public

Budgets for public defense are paltry compared to spending on the other side of the aisle. To give a sense of the disparity, in 2007, total spending for prosecutor’s offices nationwide exceeded that of public defenders offices by nearly $3.5 billion. In fact, the U.S. spends less on public defense as a share of GDP per capita than any country in Europe. Moreover, public defenders seldom have the budget to hire independent investigators or experts, while prosecutors have the resources of the police, the medical examiner, and other government personnel.

This dismal state of affairs has been nearly impossible for the public defense system to handle: lawyers, according to the ACLU, “are too often forced to juggle hundreds of cases at once, giving short shrift to investigation, case preparation, and legal research.”

Even many dedicated defense lawyers only have the time to meet clients just minutes before their hearings and often have to encourage them to plead guilty in order to move on to the next case.

The “other” justice system

In a society where moneyed interests control most of the media content we consume and can buy enough political influence to win elections, should it really be surprising that money can buy “justice,” too? Even if the wealthy can’t literally buy an acquittal, a team of high-powered attorneys with accompanying expert witnesses, investigators, and scientific tests will probably do just fine.

In one of the more recent egregious examples of money’s influence on justice, a juvenile court judge in Texas sentenced a 16-year-old to 10 years’ probation after killing four people in a drunk driving accident after hearing testimony from an expert witness who described the teenager as having “affluenza,” a psychological problem directly tied to his privilege and wealth.

And while there seems to be racism in all the nooks and crannies of our legal system, one case has come to epitomize how, in the words of British newspaper the Guardian, “a black man’s check book is just as good as a white man’s when it comes to putting together a legal team.” Even 21 years later, America’s favorite pop culture legal travesty, the OJ Simpson trial, is still grabbing headlines.

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the impunity that money can buy than our system’s inability to prosecute the bankers and financial executives who caused the subprime mortgage catastrophe of 2007-8, which wiped out the savings of millions of Americans and brought down the global economy. The New York Times, like the rest of us, is trying “to understand why the largest man-made economic catastrophe since the Depression resulted in the jailing of a single investment banker – one who happened to be several rungs from the corporate suite at a second-tier financial institution.”

Public perception

So why is it that public defenders offices are scrounging for breadcrumbs to protect potentially innocent people while banking execs pay millions or billions in fines to avoid prosecution?

For one, there is a large gap between popular perception and daily reality. Most Americans attach stigma to the clients that public defenders take on; in other words, that they are representing “the worst of the worst.” The legal system, the logic goes, is coddling criminals by funding their defense.

And somehow Wall Street executives whose misdeeds ushered in the Great Recession avoid jail time, their crimes notwithstanding. Contrast this with the savings and loan scandal of the 1980’s, which was only one-seventh the size of the 2007-8 credit crisis (in terms of losses and fraud) and yet produced over 1,000 felony convictions in the greatest prosecution of white-collar crime in history.

So, in reference to the quote at the top of this post, when author Harper Lee had Atticus Finch argue that courts “are the great levelers, and it’s in the courts that all men are created equal,” she was describing an idealized world we have still not realized.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

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