The criminal justice system in the United States is considered one of the strongest in the world – but with inequality and prejudicial practices ingrained in many aspects of the law, those strengths also reflect weaknesses. The fundamental concepts of American law are designed to protect the defendant’s basic human rights and ensure a fair trial to the degree possible; they are considered leading examples of human rights protections throughout the world. As often happens, however, while the concept can differ from the practice.
Important Concepts of the Justice System
To understand the strengths and weaknesses of the American criminal justice system, it’s important to define some critical terms used within the legal code of the United States. These include presumption of innocence, due process, evidence and proper defense.
Presumption of Innocence
The assumption that any individual is innocent until proven guilty is at the core of the American criminal justice system and is called presumption of innocence. It isn’t just the U.S.; the United Nations has declared it an international human right. It’s an important assumption, and helps to ensure that the accused receives the fairest trial possible.
Under the presumption of innocence, the prosecution must prove beyond a doubt that the accused is guilty; the burden of proof is in the prosecution’s hands. The accused does not have to prove her own innocence; it is given to her. The prosecution must prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Different nations have interpreted this in different ways. In the U.S., this means the prosecution must prove, with evidence, that the accused has in fact committed all parts of the crime he is on trial for. In practice, if a juror has any doubt that the accused has committed any part of the crime, she is expected to vote the accused as not guilty.
Due Process in the U.S.
The justice system has been set up and arranged to make sure any and all citizens receive due process: the full and fair execution of legal proceedings. This protects citizens’ legal and personal rights, and prevents the state or government from arbitrarily denying these rights to the people. For example, someone accused of murder may not be put into jail without due process, i.e., the execution of a fair trial among a jury of his peers.
In the United States, the Supreme Court has defined four protections citizens have within under due process:
- Procedural due process (a fair trial in a court of law).
- Substantive due process (protection from infringement on rights not necessarily declared by the government).
- Protection against vague laws (if an average citizen does not understand what the law has declared to be illegal, she is not held accountable).
- Incorporation of the Bill of Rights.
Together, these all combine to ensure the rights of the individual will not be violated.
Evidence in the Justice System
Evidence in law is any kind of proof used legally in a court of law to show to the judge and jury (alleged) facts relevant to the case. Evidence is of utmost importance in any criminal case; it is through evidence that the prosecution and defense make their cases to convince the judge and jury of the truth. Evidence is vital for the prosecution to prove that the defendant – assumed innocent – is in fact guilty.
Evidence comes in four basic forms:
- Real or material (for example, the gun used in a crime).
- Testimonial (from a witness interview).
- Demonstrative (a suggestion or model of how a thing was done).
- Documentary (letters, emails, and other records). Any evidence submitted must first be relevant to the crime in question.
For example, at the trial of a man accused of robbing a bank, the judge would likely consider his personality traits irrelevant, because they have little to do with the crime committed, but may serve to influence or prejudice jurors against him. Evidence must also be admissible, meaning that the evidence was obtained legally and its integrity maintained. Any evidence obtained through illegal search, or evidence that may have been tampered with, is excluded from the case.
Proper Defense in the United States
An individual in the U.S. has the right to due process; this includes, of course, a proper defense lawyer who will work to counter the prosecution’s accusations and attempt to prove innocence. Without a proper defense, the accused may find herself a victim of public will, prejudice and incorrect assumptions made by the prosecution. The defendant has the right to a qualified legal defense.
This can introduce an important question: how does someone defend the accused when the accused is in fact guilty of the crime – especially in extreme cases of violence, corruption and depravity? In these cases, the legal defense is there to ensure that the rules of law are properly followed, and to make points about how easily the public can rush to overlook legal due process. Proper defense is important in every case to ensure the rights of every single individual.
Strengths of the Criminal Justice System
The primary positive things about the criminal justice system in the United States are those summarized above: the fact that the accused, even the guilty, has the right to a fair trial and to have his personal rights respected during the trial.
Further, defendants are protected from being threatened or coerced into giving confessions, since any such evidence would have been gained illegally and thus excluded from the trial. Defendants are also protected against the court of public opinion and have the right to a qualified legal defense. These rights seem fundamental to U.S. citizens, but the fact remains that there are many nations throughout the world that do not give citizens these rights.
Burden of Proof
In particular, the fact that the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove guilt, rather than on the defendant to prove innocence, is considered a major strength. This helps protect the rights of the accused and ensures that the case discussion is focused on evidence and facts, not preconceived notions. This includes, for example, the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the defendant from self-incrimination.
This means the defendant does not have to take the witness stand against herself; she is protected from having to answer questions that might further incriminate her. This further emphasizes that the burden of proof is on the prosecution to provide appropriate evidence.
Jury of the Defendant's Peers
Another strength is the fact that, while judges preside over the court, it’s a jury of the defendant’s peers who will make the decision. This collective decision-making allows for many different points of view to be considered, and requires jurors to reach a consensus on what can be considered reasonable doubt. Jurors are meant to be impartial listeners who survey the existing evidence provided by both sides.
Plea bargains are in some ways a systemic strength; these bargains allow both sides to make an agreement before a court case begins, namely to avoid the hassle of a trial. Usually, the defendant pleads guilty, but to a lesser crime than the one initially charged; the prosecution then gets its guilty charge, and the defendant has a lighter set of penalties than he might if taken to court. This frees the justice system to focus on cases that cannot be decided without a trial. However, there are weaknesses to the plea bargain as well.
Weaknesses of the U.S. Criminal Justice System
Some of the strengths of the U.S. criminal justice system are also weak points in the criminal justice system. American society is plagued with underlying societal undercurrents, resulting in institutions, including the court of law, that are susceptible to racism, sexism and classism. For example, studies show that black defendants receive harsher sentences than white defendants for the same crime; this sort of underlying racism is not overt, which makes it hard to counter, even in a court of law. This has produced an unfair balance in the incarceration of individuals from minority groups, and is very difficult to address.
In addition, the very rich have the distinct advantage of being able to post bail, hire the most powerful attorneys and contact powerful connections to help sway the case in their favor. A defendant with economic disadvantages often finds herself struggling with legal fees in addition to the crime of which she has been accused. Further, while she is guaranteed a qualified defense, many public defenders are overworked and may not have the time or resources available, compared to an elite, private attorney. Thus, the wealthy often are able to win favorable outcomes, where a less well-off defendant may not, introducing another societal bias that is hard to address.
Plea Bargains and Justice
While plea bargains are often seen as a boon, there are inherent weaknesses involved when a case is resolved by bargain rather than in the court. The plea bargain depends on how likely it is that the defendant would be convicted of the crime, and the prosecution is often able to pressure the defendant into taking the plea. Not only does this give the prosecution more power, but it has resulted in cases in which a defendant is never charged for a crime he actually committed.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
The core concept of innocent until proven guilty can be considered a weakness; by putting all of the burden of proof on the prosecution, all the defendant’s team has to do is produce one scenario in which jurors might doubt that the defendant is guilty.
This results in a number of guilty individuals who have been acquitted and have walked free because of a single hole in the prosecution’s story. Whether this is a strength or a weakness can be argued; historically, ensuring that an innocent individual avoids a false charge has had higher value than the chance that a criminal would walk free in society. Nevertheless, since it can absolutely affect the jury’s decision, it is a critical concept in terms of the system’s overall fairness.
Conclusions on Strengths and Weaknesses
The criminal justice system in America is, fundamentally, built to ensure that the accused is protected until due process in a court of law has been achieved. This gives Americans many rights that aren’t provided in other nations. However, the institution of the court – influenced by societal pressure and a new generation of legal experts – must continually reevaluate the ways that unintended institutional bias can affect the outcome of a court case.
This goes for lawyers as well as the average citizen, who may be called to be a juror in a case involving a group or individual different than him, i.e., a defendant that could bring out a prejudicial response.
The best way to keep the criminal justice system of the United States strong is to continue to evolve laws, teachings and common knowledge to ensure that rights are not infringed, trials are fair and true justice is served.