justice fallacies: presumption of innocence

A fundamental principle of the justice system is the presumption of innocence.  In truth, this is a fallacy.  It does not exist.  The truth of the matter is, if the police arrest someone or if the state files criminal charges then they are guilty.  Forget about the trial and other platitudes of justice.  For the accused, it is an uphill battle to prove their innocence.

Gideon has a great post about the presumption of guilt on his blog (available here) that prompted some reflection upon my own career.  As a probation/parole agent and presentence writer I was afforded the luxury of not concerning myself with someone’s guilt or innocence.  At the point when our paths would cross they had either been convicted or more regularly, entered a guilty plea.  It was not necessary for me to get sidetracked with presumptions.

The turning point for me occurred midway through my career when a family member was charged with a crime, convicted, and sentenced to federal prison.  At the time I was assigned to a FBI violent crime task force and I knew the truth.  I knew the truth was not as I had previously believed.  The secret, as exposed by Gideon, is the truth I have come to know and experience on a regular basis:

The real truth, hidden in the backrooms of courthouses and in the ugly, dirty trenches of everyday warfare is quite different. Every morning, the defendant and the defense lawyer face a nearly unsurmountable task: overcome the fact that almost everyone but you thinks your client is guilty.

One of the great contradictions I have yet to rectify in my mind is the injustice of a system that, like a perpetual motion machine, grows ever larger while the capacity for compassion grows ever smaller.  We have allowed our fear to consume and control us while relinquishing freedom and accountability.

We pay lip service to fundamental principles with trite sayings such as “innocent until proven guilty” while shuffling people along a massive assembly line through “the system” on a pipeline to prison.  When we stumble upon something that works we stop doing it.  Kansas is a prime example (available here) of taking a model re-entry program and stripping it bare in favor prison cells.

NEWS FLASH: based upon 16 years in the criminal justice system, jail and prison cells are not the preferred solution.  Contrary to the media hype, most people involved in criminal activity are deserving of opportunities to change.  There are many reasons why people become involved in criminal activity and most of them are easily rectified with a little effort.  Compassion and empathy are powerful tools that when implemented are capable of changing lives.

Agreed, some people do horrendous things and earn the privilege of being locked away from the community.  They are the exception, however, most have the capacity for meaningful change and meaningful contributions to society.

Seth Godin made the following observation that I would invite you to consider in the context of those charged with a crime (here is the link):

It’s absurd to look at a three year old toddler and say, “this kid can’t read or do math or even string together a coherent paragraph. He’s a dolt and he’s never going to amount to anything.” No, we don’t say that because we know we can teach and motivate and cajole the typical kid to be able to do all of these things.

Why is it okay, then, to look at a teenager and say, “this kid will never be a leader, never run a significant organization, never save a life, never inspire or create…”

Just because it’s difficult to grade doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught.

Never mind a teenager. I think it’s wrong to say that about someone who’s fifty.

Isn’t it absurd to focus so much energy on ‘practical’ skills that prep someone for a life of following instructions but relentlessly avoid the difficult work necessary to push someone to reinvent themselves into becoming someone who makes a difference?

And isn’t it even worse to write off a person or an organization merely because of what they are instead of what they might become?

The presumption of guilt has life altering repercussions for the accused and sets them on the road to prison as an easy way of avoiding the “difficult work” of reinventing lives and communities.  The solution lies in exposing the back-room secrets, stripping away the platitudes and confronting the truth.