Politics and Justice
Many believe that the criminal justice system is immune to the swaying pendulum of politics. This is due to the Constitution’s separation of powers. There are three branches of government, a judicial branch, executive branch, and legislative branch, which are clearly defined. But is this separation enough when it comes to the criminal justice system? In other words, do the politics inherent in the legislative and executive branches of government trickle over to the judicial branch? The answer is yes. Yes, they do.
The influence comes with the requirement that those with power within the criminal justice system are subject to the election process. County Attorneys, for example, are elected officials. Their assistants are hired but the person who makes the policies, runs the office, and decides who is promoted, who stays, and who gets canned is an elected politician subject to re-election every four years.
Therefore, County Attorneys who value their position and intend to keep it, must concern themselves with politics. Why does any of this matter? Because politics are not supposed to be a consideration when prosecutors discuss plea agreements with defense attorneys. Prosecutors are supposed to consider the strength of the case, the impact it has on the community, the alleged victim of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and various other facts, none of which are, “If I dismiss this case, my opponent in the next election will use it in his or her campaign.”
For example, consider a case where a man is charged with assault and child endangerment (FYI these are not real facts from a real case). Let’s say that man is charged based on his 11-year-old stepdaughter’s allegation that he struck her one night when his wife and her mother was not yet home from work. Then let’s say that the stepdaughter later admits to her mother that she made it all up because she was mad that her step-father wouldn’t let her go over to a friend’s house. Then a few days later the daughter is once again angry with her step-father, and claims her second story was a lie and the first one was true.
Let’s also say it is September and there is a hotly contested County Attorney Election in full swing. The County Attorney’s opponent has been posting on his Facebook page every time the County Attorney amends charges to a lesser offense or dismisses a case. The County Attorney knows a dismissal of this case will be posted with a giant tag line that says, “child abuser goes free.” Under these facts, do you as the reader believe the prosecutor is going to offer this man the same deal before the election as he/she would if this alleged assault occurred five or six months later – after the prosecutor was safe and snug in his/her comfy office for the next four years?
If the answer is “yes,” than you are lying to yourself. Politics do play into my example scenario and do play into the scenarios of thousands of criminal defendants every four years. Is it fair? Absolutely not. Can we do better? Probably. But someone has to acknowledge the problem. Someone has to care. Someone has to take positive steps towards change. Politics do influence the criminal justice system, especially in election years, and this simply should not be.