I wanted to make a brief post about the picture I have connected in the title image. Although it is certainly not my best photo, something about the moment in which I took the picture made me realize just how important and broken our legal institutions are.
If you look closely enough, you will see a man in a gray suit with a briefcase crossing a pedestrian bridge presumably on his way to the state courthouse. This man could have been a public defense attorney, working long, grueling hours with nothing but his unbreakable passion for legal defense to fuel him; he could have been a prosecutor, with intentions ranging between keeping his community safe or wanting to punish criminals to the fullest extent of the law; or he could have been a judge, preparing to give someone a second chance or to sentence them to prison for decades.
In the court of law, policy vanishes. Those who stand on the other side of the courthouse well can have their life ruined in one sentence. As important as an at least semi-functioning legal institution is, the amount of unchecked power a few people have over the future of someone’s life is unsettling.
But it is all we have. Building upon this system is just as important as creating it. The amount of injustice we can repair is incredible. We can start by simply treating prisoners with some level of humanity. Many are shocked by the erratic, violent behavior of inmates in some of America’s top prisons, but what else can we expect from people that are tortured through days, weeks or even months of complete isolation for 23 hours a day.
Criminal defense is a field full of some of the most passionate, loving people in society. It takes an extraordinary level of empathy, selflessness, and dedication to go through 7 years of a mentally-taxing education just to make slightly above the average salary working 60 to 80 hours a week. These people should, of course, be paid a proper wage for their contribution to society and not be forced to juggle their time between multiple clients. But in the meantime, the least we can do is commemorate and remind ourselves of their service to this country. Americans across the political spectrum share some degree of admiration for the underdog standing up to an unjust government — if defense attorneys don’t fit that bill, I don’t know who does.
While my admiration mostly lies with defenders, prosecutors and judges are equally as important. Although prosecutors normally receive more funding granting them an unfair advantage in many circumstances, they are the gatekeepers of justice. Judges protect the necessary integrity of the legal process, and while it is frustrating to see some judges fully wield their power to brutally punish non-violent offenders, it is ultimately up to our legislators and leaders to democratically readjust the range of punishments for each crime.
Criminal justice is broken but is also so much room for improvement. Ending capital punishment, reorganizing our prisons more around rehabilitation, and providing adequate funding to programs that need it are some of the changes we can start advocating for on a local, state and federal level. By dedicating ourselves to being the voice of the unheard, we not only fulfill our moral and civic duty but also make our communities safe and prosperous. While that man in the gray suit dedicated his life towards serving his community, it is our democratic responsibility to make sure that the courthouse he walks into bends towards the virtue of justice.