Millions of American citizens are arrested by the police every year: detained, questioned, handcuffed, stuffed into the back of a police cruiser, and thrown in jail. Many of them never expected it to happen to them. These individuals are often shocked to find themselves fighting for their liberties, their reputations, and their futures in the clutches of The Beast – the impersonal, aggressive, bureaucratic, politically-charged, economically-motivated nightmare that is today’s criminal justice system. As America’s criminal justice system becomes ever larger and more powerful, it is time to ask ourselves: what should we be more afraid of? the criminals? or The Beast?
Popularized in a vast array of television shows – “Law and Order,” “CSI,” “Cold Case,” “COPS,” and “Nancy Grace,” to name a few – as white-knight police and prosecutors battling wily criminals with slick defense lawyers, the criminal justice system is widely misunderstood by the average American. The “good guy – bad guy” image is reinforced by politicians of every stripe vowing to be “tough on crime” and by special-interest groups promoting Zero Tolerance policies on the streets, in the schools, and in the workplaces. What most Americans fail to realize is that the effect of our law-and-order political philosophy has been the passage of many more criminal laws, broader definitions of what constitutes a crime, greater restrictions on civil liberties, and harsher punishments.
In the belly of The Beast there are few chances to “work things out” with the police and prosecutors. There are arrests instead of warnings, convictions instead leniency, and few second chances. In the age of the Internet and the rise in corporate surveillance, the consequences of having even a single conviction on your record can be life-long and devastating.
Champions of “law and order” policing often take aim at the rights of criminal defendants. But these rights are not “trivial and arcane,” as a “Law and Order” character once called them. They are based in the U.S. Constitution. The founding fathers put them there to protect individual citizens from the absolute power of the government. Unlike in medieval England – or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — the police cannot force you to answer questions without consulting an attorney. They cannot send you to prison without a trial. And you cannot be found guilty unless the government proves its case against you beyond a reasonable doubt.