How Poverty Plays Into the Criminal Justice System


Jessica Son, Staff Writer

  “In the American criminal justice system, wealth—not culpability—shapes outcomes. Indigent people are unfairly disadvantaged at every step in a system that treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent,” the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) writes.

  Justice should not be different for people with different amounts of wealth. Justice should be an unbiased, fair system that gives everyone what they deserve. However, the people in poverty are significantly underrepresented, and it seems the only way to get justice is to be rich. In the criminal justice system, plea bargaining and public defenders are set up to give the poor an unfair disadvantage compared to the rich.

  Because of plea bargaining, most people don’t even get their time in court, especially the poor that have a low chance of winning their case.

  According to the Legal Information Institute, plea bargains are deals between the prosecutor and defendant, where the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to the charges against them for a lower jail sentence.

  Unlike those dramatic TV law dramas, court is nothing like how media portrays it. In fact, because 90-95% of the accused plead guilty or no contest, an overwhelming majority has to take credit for a crime they did not commit. And that’s the thing. We would never know if they did commit the crime or not, because prosecutors just throw people in jail to get their cases out of the way. Plea bargaining gives too much unchecked power to the prosecutor.

  Prosecutors have the negotiating power to charge people as they wish, which isn’t bad because that’s their job. The bad thing is is that their charges aren’t fixed or definite. The prosecutor holds the authority to drop charges or give the defender a plea deal. But say that the defender decides to fight for their case, and see it through. What if the prosecutor says, “If you lose the case, it’s another nine years in jail?” Now the situation is different.

  In this case, the prosecutor is coercing the defender to plead guilty to a crime they might not have commited. This is not justice. Justice stands up for what is right, and the whole point of the criminal justice system is to have a fair way to settle disputes, and to punish those who have done something morally wrong. People are being forced to lie to get less time in jail when they shouldn’t go to jail at all. According to Huffington Post, “The number [of innocent convicts] has risen most years since 2005, when 61 people were cleared of crimes they didn’t commit.” Additionally, Huffington Post also writes that most people who were wrongfully convicted served an average of 14.5 years in jail.

  People who are less socio-economically advantageous are also more prone to losing their cases because of public defenders. A public defender is a lawyer of sorts that the government provides for people who cannot afford lawyers. However, many people cannot afford lawyers. The government issues public defenders for about 80% of state criminal defendants.

  So if this overwhelming majority all need a public defender, how many cases are public defenders in charge of? According to The Guardian, “In a lawsuit brought in Washington State, it emerged that publicly appointed defense attorneys were working less than an hour per case, with caseloads of 1,000 misdemeanors per year.”

  For the “crime” of being poor, defendants are given less than an hour with their public defender, and they are expected to have a good argument on why they shouldn’t go to jail. This, coupled with corrupt prosecutors coercing people to taking a plea deal, shows that the poor don’t really have a say in proving whether they are innocent or guilty.

  In the criminal justice system, where everyone is supposed to get a fair chance in proving their innocence, the poor are blocked from saying or proving what they believe. Poverty is not a crime and people, poor or rich, should get their time in court.

  So, next time a court drama plays on the TV, remember the underlying dishonesty and bias towards people who cannot pay to have a voice in the criminal justice system.