The Criminal Justice System in Context
Unless you have been in a media-free cave for the last few weeks, you probably heard about the young woman from Orlando who was recently acquitted of murdering her toddler daughter and released from jail. You also probably also heard about the public outrage following the verdict, including celebrity tweets condemning the trial’s outcome.
It’s easy to get caught up in the story’s lurid details. After all, the case and subsequent trial has basically been a reality show for the last three years. According to reports, coverage of the case has brought the cable channel HLN record ratings. Even casual onlookers probably have an opinion about the case and the verdict.
But more importantly, what can this case teach us about the criminal justice system?
- The rarer the case, the more news coverage it may receive
Most of what goes on in the criminal justice system remains out of public view. Media coverage tends to gravitate toward the sensational, especially if the case involves a young white female victim or accused offender. As Terry Glenn Lilley discussed in his post about murder victim Laci Peterson, young white females are more likely to be memorialized with laws in their honor.
In 2009 (the latest date with complete FBI statistics) only 7.6 percent of those arrested for murder were female. And while whites comprise about 72 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 34 percent of those arrested for murder. So the defendant in this case was unusual in terms of both race and gender.
Reports also suggest that the family has been able to earn money from the coverage, presumably to pay for hiring a team of defense lawyers. ABC News apparently paid $200,000 in order to license home videos and photos to use in their coverage of the case. While intensive media coverage may not necessarily work to a defendant’s benefit, infamy can pay well. An acquittal means that a former defendant can sign a book or movie deal or get paid for an interview.
While true crime can make for interesting television, it does not give us a clear picture of what most people involved in the criminal justice system experience.
- A high-quality defense team makes a big difference
While commentators regularly criticized the tactics of the defense in this case, having a team of attorneys committed to a defendant can literally be the difference between life and death. The criminal justice system—past and present—is littered with death penalty cases where attorneys have been accused of gross negligence.
Many low-income defendants who rely on public defenders may find their cases plea bargained, particularly since defenders are paid by the case and may have little time or resources (or incentive) to adequately defend their client. Public defenders might have a large docket of cases that they are juggling too.
When I was growing up, a friend’s father was a defense lawyer who represented mostly low-income people accused of crimes. Many of his clients could not afford to pay anything, so occasionally he would get a used VCR or video game console in lieu of payment. Their family led a modest middle-class lifestyle, and unlike many other families with an attorney parent, they struggled financially. Although high-profile murder cases feature well-known (or soon to be well-known) defense attorneys, many of their colleagues stand to benefit far less financially from their work.
- Privilege matters
Jeffrey Reiman argues in his book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison that the criminal justice system can be like a sieve for wealthier people, offering them numerous escape hatches that aren’t available to their lower-income counterparts. A focused, committed defense team shouldn’t be a luxury, but it is one way that people of means might avoid prison.
Privilege shouldn’t matter, and that’s probably what much of the anger about this verdict stems from. As with other high-profile acquittals, onlookers who are convinced of the defendant’s guilt feel outraged that the system didn’t seem to work.
In reality, thousands of low-income people of color feel the same way about the criminal justice system every day, as circumstantial evidence—often much less convincing than in this case—leads to numerous criminal convictions.
Even before a person goes on trial, privilege matters. One of the reasons this case was so unusual is that we tend not to think of young, attractive, white middle-class mothers as dangerous. This young woman seemed to defy that expectation, although news reports characterized her as a longtime “partier.”
A similar young low-income mother of color might have had more interactions with social service agencies to formally demonize her behavior and sanction her earlier in life. Even partying has difference consequences based on one’s privilege. Low-income teens are more likely to be arrested for disturbing the peace or curfew violations than middle-class teens in suburban areas and thus have more involvement with the criminal justice system. In contrast, writing bad checks and owing back taxes, two offenses the Orlando woman has also been charged with, are typically seen as less threatening white-collar crimes.
High-profile trials are packed with drama—so much of our fictional entertainment involves crime and punishment for this reason—but there is usually more going on sociologically than meets the eye. What other hidden realities of the criminal justice system might this blockbuster case reveal?