Our Criminal Justice System: Balancing the Goals of Public Safety and Justice
The dual goals of our criminal justice system are to maximize public safety and to ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice.
The system operates with five components – law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judiciary and corrections – each plays a key role in the process.
Law enforcement agencies investigate allegations of acts determined to be illegal by Congress or state legislatures. Investigations begin when an agency or officer suspects that a crime has been committed or when the agency receives a citizen’s complaint or a report from a crime victim.
After receiving investigative reports, prosecuting attorneys determine whether criminal charges should be filed. Proposed charges may be submitted to a grand jury or to a judge who then determines whether there is sufficient probable cause to proceed with prosecution.
Prosecutors are not simply responsible for obtaining convictions. Their job is to obtain justice for the accused, the community and the victim. “[Their] goal is met both when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not”. [Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor]
A person accused of a crime is arrested or summoned to appear in court. He has the right to be considered for release before trial. He should be released pre-trial unless the State convinces a judge that he is a flight risk or a danger to the community. A person should not be held in jail simply because he lacks the money to post bail.
Everyone accused of a crime has the right to be represented by an attorney and, if the accused is facing a jail or prison sentence and is without funds, he has the right to a court-appointed attorney. It is the job of the defense attorney to ensure that the defendant’s constitutional rights are protected and to represent him zealously within the bounds of the law.
A defendant chooses to have a jury trial or a trial before a judge. In either case, he is presumed to be innocent. Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said that “it is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer” and that belief – translated into the “presumption of innocence” - is one of the most important foundations of our constitutionally-based criminal justice system
The presumption of innocence is not overcome unless a judge or jury concludes that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” after a trial at which he need not testify nor present any evidence, but is entitled to a face-to-face confrontation and a right to question his accusers. Even if convicted, the defendant has a right to appeal to a higher court – again, with the assistance of an attorney.
Nearly three-fourths of Indiana’s criminal cases are resolved with plea agreements and another 18 percent are dismissed. [Indiana Judicial Service Reports] Plea negotiations allow the State and the defendant to settle cases without the expense and risk of trial and by negotiating outcomes that are fair and just to each party.
Judges preside over trials, consider whether to accept or reject plea agreements, and sentence defendants who are convicted. In deciding what penalty should be imposed, judges have discretion within a range of penalties established by the legislature. Judges consider the severity of the offense, the character and history of the defendant and the statement of any victim in sentencing.
Criminal convictions carry serious consequences. The judge may require a period of imprisonment served in a jail, prison, work-release facility or in home with electronic surveillance. Probation can include mental health or substance abuse treatment, community service, fines and payment of restitution to a victim.
Criminal convictions may also result in the loss of valuable civil rights and make it difficult for offenders to obtain employment, housing, licensing or student loans. Indiana permits some persons to expunge old convictions, lessening the impact of those convictions in the future.
All of the components of our criminal justice system must constantly work to improve the administration of justice. We recognize that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” [Martin Luther King, Jr. —‘Letter from Birmingham, Alabama Jail’, 1963]
Jessie Cook is a Terre Haute criminal defense attorney and a volunteer for the Indiana Bar Foundation.