6 Shockingly Outdated Problems The US Legal System Won't Fix
Unless you're a big city lawyer or a career criminal, your knowledge of the American justice system probably comes from John Grisham movies, Law & Order, and the occasional O.J. Simpson trial. And while that's enough to get you through daily life, it's also probably a big reason so many bafflingly archaic flaws still exist in our laws, courtrooms, and prisons. For instance ...
A Horrifying Number Of People Are Wrongly Convicted
You'd think our nation's unanimous love of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile would make us sympathetic to wrongful conviction, but it looks like we only care when there's a charismatic, folksy narrator telling us the story. This is compounded by the fact that it's incredibly difficult to get accurate numbers on wrongful convictions. The only universal consensus is "Yeah, this shit probably happens way more than it should."
There are hard numbers on death penalty cases -- 4.1 percent of people sentenced to death are later shown to be innocent, thankfully often before the execution. For other serious crimes, one study estimated 10,000 wrongful convictions a year, which sounds impossible until you realize that's a mere 0.5 percent of the nearly two million people prosecuted in 1990, the year the study examined. Whether they compensated for parachute-pant-related crimes of fashion isn't clear, but a 2012 study also pegged 10,000 wrongful convictions as an entirely plausible number. That's an entire small town of Andy Dufresnes, and that's only for serious crimes.
Minor felonies like burglary, car theft, and drug charges almost always produce plea bargains with no serious examination of the evidence and no appeals. That's because the defendants in these cases don't fight the charges (either because they can't afford to or simply don't know how), or they're talked into confessing and taking a plea bargain. These defendants are sent to prison with little or no trial at all, and if we have a 4.1 percent error rate in heavily-scrutinized cases involving the death penalty, then what the hell is the error rate for the cases we barely even bother to put in a courtroom?
And why does this happen? Are there too many Lionel Hutzes and Barry Zuckercorns in this country? Well, bad lawyers are definitely one factor, as are bad science, unreliable and/or coerced testimony, and public and/or government pressure in emotionally charged cases. But the honor of the largest problem belongs to eyewitness misidentification, because as anyone who's ever tried to explain last night's episode of Gotham to you can probably attest, our memories suck. Can you remember what everyone in your classroom or office was wearing yesterday? How about the hair, eye color, and facial structure of the dude you bought lunch from? Does your recollection seem substantial enough to send someone to prison? The justice system thinks so!
And then there's the question of prosecutors. America is the only country in the world that elects its prosecutors -- which, for reasons that will soon become clear, is fucking lunacy. Prosecutors are 10 percent more likely to take a case to trial in the year leading up to an election; a number that rises to 25 percent when the election isn't going to be a shoo-in. And because a losing record doesn't look good when you're running for reelection, this produces Saul-Goodman-esque tactics of suppressing evidence, buttering up witnesses, and flat-out lying. In a study of 1,621 wrongly convicted people, nearly half were put away by a prosecutor who was somewhat less-than-on-the-level. Incidentally, in a study of 707 cases of lawyer misconduct, only six prosecutors were punished. Apparently, the best way to avoid a conviction is to commit a crime in the courtroom itself.
Marital Rape Is Barely Illegal And Extremely Difficult To Prosecute
We tend to think of rapists as strangers in dark alleys, but the reality is that 80 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and 25 percent are committed by an "intimate," meaning a spouse or partner. For some inexplicable reason, eight states still treat such cases like a special kind of rape which woman have to work extra hard to prove wasn't consensual.
Marital rape has been illegal since 1993 -- a law that took several hundred years longer to be put on the books than any reasonable person would have thought necessary -- but eight states in 2015 America still have "marital privilege" laws, wherein the accuser has to demonstrate that violence or threats were employed. So in, say, Ohio, rohypnol is basically a "get out of rape charges free" tool for the shittiest husbands. In Oklahoma, it's similarly okay to have sex with a spouse who's drugged, drunk, or asleep. Date rape doesn't count if you're married to the rapist, it seems.
But South Carolina makes those two states look downright progressive. There, a spouse has to threaten to use a weapon or commit physical violence "of a high and aggravated nature" for it to be considered rape. You also only have 30 days to decide whether to press charges against your spouse, which seems like an unfairly tiny window to give a person to make the most difficult decision of their entire lives. And the maximum sentence is 10 years, as opposed to 30 years for other forms of rape. Really, you'd be better off filing for divorce before going to the police.
Thankfully, lawmakers in several of these states are pushing for reform on the time-honored legal basis of "Guys, what the hell are we doing here?" But even in states where being married to your victim isn't considered an ironclad legal defense, marital rape is still notoriously difficult to prosecute. One study estimated that only 7.5 percent of cases of spousal rape are prosecuted. Why is this the case? Well, for starters, when your rapist's name is on the deed to your house or your children's grocery bills, you have to balance justice with not being homeless and hungry. A victim might wait a few months to press charges in order to put themselves and their kids in a less precarious position, but jurors often look at that delay as a sign that the allegations aren't that serious.
Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that. We live in a society in which many people still see sex as a wifely duty that women have to put up with. Plus, it's hard to view someone you married out of love as a rapist, or to admit to your friends and family that your spouse is abusing you. The point is that the concept of rape within a marriage is so foreign to us that our reactions range from "inept" to "cartoonishly villainous."
We're Making It Nearly Impossible To Study Gun Violence
You may have noticed that guns are making the news. There's a good reason for that -- while gun violence as a whole is down, mass shootings (anything involving more than three or four victims, depending on whom you ask) are up, according to both the FBI and Harvard, with the latter's research indicating that the rate of mass shootings has tripled since 2011. That's the kind of growth rate you'd brag about, if only it weren't in the field of multiple murder.
Why is this the case? If your answer is a shrug, followed by "I have no idea. Let me enjoy my hot pockets in peace," then congratulations! You know about as much as the experts. Overall violence is down, gun ownership is down, mental illness rates are probably down, and trying to create a profile of a "typical" mass shooter is like trying to create a profile of people who prefer Coke to Pepsi. Yet the number of mass shootings is increasing. That sure seems like something the government should be studying, right?
Actually, no. Not because it's a bad idea, but because they're legally incapable. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would love nothing more than to look into this, but in 1996, Congress passed an NRA-backed bill which included the line "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control." Congress also took the $2.6 million the CDC had been using for firearms research and ordered them to invest it in studying the prevention of traumatic brain injury. You know, like the kind you're left with when you get shot in the head.
In 2013, President Obama ordered the CDC to study the causes of gun violence. But here we are in 2015, and the CDC still hasn't done anything. Thanks to the vague wording of that original bill, they're terrified that even bringing a Nerf gun to the office would cause Congress to demolish their budget. The CDC has been ordered to study gun violence, but has also been ordered to not spend any money on studying gun violence, which is the kind of paradox that Doc Brown would draw on a chalkboard in the smoldering remains of his garage.
The CDC isn't the only agency spooked by gun research. Most consider it a poorly-funded political quagmire that could kill your career. The NRA's logic is that some researchers might be biased towards gun control, which is apparently sufficient reason to never do any research, ever.
Not that the research would be easy. For instance, most police departments don't track the number of people they shoot, and those which do produce numbers that don't match the ones collected by the FBI. Not that you should trust those numbers anyway, seeing as how the Director of the FBI has admitted that their data is essentially useless compared to that collected by The Washington Post after the paper decided to try to fill in the gaps. Police shootings can most accurately be tracked by police departments, but they don't want the controversy associated with shootings, so they don't record them (this is admittedly a bulletproof tactic).
As a result, America's law enforcement agencies and a child with access to Google have an equal idea of how many people get shot by cops every year. Although data collection is slowly improving, thanks to the government's realization that people getting killed by government employees is probably something they should keep track of.
Solitary Confinement Drives Prisoners Crazy
Solitary confinement doesn't sound too bad to anyone who's spent an entire weekend in bed watching Netflix. But isolating yourself after a long week of society forcing you to wear pants doesn't compare to being cut off from all forms of human interaction 24/7. The theory behind solitary confinement is simple enough: If a prisoner is causing problems, solitary confinement acts as both a punishment and a safety measure by separating them from the rest of the prison population. It's like a time out for felons.
But while solitary was once used for a few days in response to specific incidents, it's now used for months or years to combat general behavioral concerns. But hey, guess what? While this latter form of solitary confinement has never been proven to make prisons safer, it's pretty much universally agreed that it makes prisoners worse. It turns out that throwing a person into an isolated box for weeks on end makes them fucking insane. Symptoms of extended isolation include hallucinations, panic attacks, obsessive behavior, paranoia, lapses in concentration, self-mutilation, and suicidal tendencies (not the band). That makes prisoners harder to manage and more likely to relapse into violent crime when they're released back into society (sometimes directly from solitary confinement).
But wait, it gets worse! Anywhere from 20 percent to 66 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement have a preexisting mental illness (which is probably what caused their disruptive behavior in the first place), which exacerbates all of the negative effects of prolonged isolation. And preexisting conditions or not, the psychological damage caused by extended isolation can be permanent, because brains don't react well to having nothing but four walls and their own thoughts for 22 hours a day.
Offering prisoners mental health treatment is a tough sell ("We're supposed to be punishing them!"), but regardless of whether you see prison as a tool for rehabilitation or a punitive measure designed to deter, solitary confinement makes either thing worse. You can't rehabilitate a person who's broken on such a fundamental level that they're mutilating themselves, and it turns out that it's also easier to keep prisons running smoothly when your inmates aren't a bunch of violently insane people who keep getting sent back there after release. Isolation units are also expensive, if money is the only thing you care about.
Throw in the usual racial bias (blacks and Latinos are far more likely to get thrown in solitary), guards occasionally inflicting punishment as part of personal vendettas, and how nearly every country in the world which doesn't produce any Bond villains considers it torture, and it's impossible to come up with a compelling argument for keeping an estimated 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement. There are more American prisoners in solitary confinement than there are prisoners in the entire United Kingdom, a country that keeps a whole 40 prisoners in solitary confinement for safety reasons. But hey, maybe Orange Is The New Black making solitary look shitty will help.
Trying Juveniles As Adults Turns Them Into Adult Criminals
About 250,000 kids are tried as adults every year, compared to 1.7 million going through the juvenile system for stealing pies from windowsills, or whatever it is kids do. Usually, this is because their crime was notably violent or the latest in a long string of juvenile offenses, although sometimes a prosecutor or judge wants to look tough on crime. You can understand the logic behind it, though. Serious crimes deserve serious punishment and deterrent -- and as a bonus, you get to send a shitty teenager to prison, which everyone loves. Unfortunately, this doesn't reform juvenile offenders so much as ensure that they'll become criminals as adults.
Teenagers who go to big-boy prison are far more likely to be re-arrested than kids who go to juvie, and that's after accounting for the severity of their crimes (the study wasn't comparing rapists to shoplifters). Also, their educational and employment options are severely limited by their records (the whole point of the juvenile system is that it doesn't leave kids with a criminal record). And since adult prisons aren't designed to handle young offenders, kids don't get much of an education while they're the clink. Hey, what do you think a young adult who can't get a college education or a decent job might resort to? Probably crime, right?
Surprisingly, locking impressionable teenagers up with hardened criminals during their formative years isn't the best idea. Furthermore, juveniles in adult facilities are far more likely to be beaten and sexually assaulted, and are at a high risk of suicide. That'll teach 'em to break the law.
The thing is, juvenile offenders are at an age where their brains are actively rewiring themselves, and they don't fully comprehend the consequences of their actions. We're not saying that teenagers don't understand that punching someone in the face is bad, but 66-75 percent of violent teenagers grow out of those tendencies -- unless, of course, they somehow find themselves in an environment which encourages violence. When you treat teenagers as criminals who should be punished, rather than as kids who should be rehabilitated, that's what they turn into.
Also, teenagers are dumb as shit, you guys. Kids under the age of 16 can have as much difficulty understanding the intricacies of the legal system as an adult who's been declared unfit to stand trial, which can make it difficult for them to mount a proper defense. This was the conclusion reached by a study of 1,400 young Americans, while the same conclusion was also reached independently by everyone who's ever tried to order anything at a drive-thru.
Criminal Sentencing Is Wildly Inconsistent For Woman And Minorities
Between 50 states that each handle crime differently, national and local legislators duking it out over new laws, and the odd vengeful vigilante of the night taking things into their own hands, it's highly unlikely that two people convicted of the exact same crime will get the same punishment. That is because, despite the justice system's claims of being fair and impartial, it is neither of those things.
For starters, women are twice as likely as men to avoid incarceration if convicted of a crime. Women who do spend time in the pokey won't be there as long as men, who earn 63 percent longer sentences on average for more-or-less identical crimes (this is accounting for similar criminal backgrounds and other conditional factors).
There are several theories for why this is. One is the "girlfriend theory," or the idea that women are simple-minded pawns going along with the plans of their male partners. Which is quite insulting, but should absolutely be taken advantage of if you're a woman planning a bank robbery. Women's societal role as mothers, and their willingness to be more cooperative during criminal investigations than men, also factor in. But it might come down to how society and the government don't give a shit if women get off easily -- which is ironic, given our attitude towards women in literally every other aspect of society. We're not suggesting we should start cracking down on female criminals, but rather that since women have consistently consistently lower recidivism rates than men, there might be something to the fact that they are shown relative leniency.
Race plays a factor, too, which probably comes as a shock to absolutely no one. In addition to black and Latino drivers getting searched 6.7 percent and 7.9 percent more often than white drivers during traffic stops, blacks get 10 percent longer prison sentences than whites (again, accounting for conditional factors). The race of the victim is also important, even though this is 2015 and not the 1930s. Blacks who victimize whites receive longer sentences than those involved in black-on-black or white-on-white crime. The death penalty is most often handed down in murder cases in which the victim was a white woman. Conversely, the death penalty is most commonly withheld in murder cases in which the victim was a black man and the defendant was a white man.
Obviously, the solution isn't to start executing more people, but when the most common homicide victims (black men) are seeing their killers get the lightest punishments, there's a fundamental problem in the way criminal sentencing is handled, and it needs to be addressed. The nearly insurmountable first step? Convincing the average person to give a shit.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Did you know courtrooms are a literal circus on purpose? And that prosecutors have no problem with breaking all the rules? See what we mean in 5 Staples Of The Legal System That Statistics Say Don't Work and 5 Ways America's Justice System Is Designed To Screw You.
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