Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Retrofitting the Justice Machine

If the American criminal justice system has become a Rube Goldberg machine, it's because of several problematic premises. The first is an assembly line of behind-the-scenes plea bargains monopolized by lawyers, with only a tiny fraction of cases decided in public trials.

John H. Langbein called attention to this over thirty years ago. His notable essay “Torture and Plea Bargaining” appeared in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1978.

But plea bargaining is far from the only problem underlying the system. Another is relying so heavily on incarceration as a response to crime.

This has created a vast prison system — far vaster now than when Langbein wrote. Many convicted people are kept incarcerated for years at a time, in prisons far from public view. Correctional officers do the dirty work to keep it all running, serving as society’s proxies.

In his new book The Machinery of Criminal Justice, Stephanos Bilbas aims to show not only how this system was constructed. He also seeks to show how more transparency and greater involvement by the general public could be regained.

Based on what I’ve read in his guest post on Doug Berman’s blog, Bilbas, a law professor at Penn, isn’t proposing trying to turn the clock back to colonial times completely. He argues, however, that we can turn the pendulum partway back, so that ordinary citizens can become more aware and more involved in the system administered on their behalf.

More to come on this. I may need to keep this blog going after all.

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