A Window into the Criminal Justice System
Laura Marti – September 19, 2023
“Justice is never actually experienced directly. By contrast, we do experience injustice, and it is only through this that we form an idea of justice.” — Nancy Fraser, Professor of Philosophy & Politics at the New School for Social Research
I recently had the opportunity to gain insight into the inner workings of our criminal justice system during a tour of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in Charlotte, NC. It was led by two criminal attorneys who head up a Criminal Justice Affinity Group at the church I attend. The experience opened my eyes to the stark realities faced by those navigating this complex and often daunting system. Throughout the day, my observations left me with a profound sense of the systemic challenges that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.
Traffic Court: An Unequal Start
Our day began in traffic court, where a striking majority of participants were people of color. Seated amongst my fellow white attendees in the back of the room, I couldn’t help but reflect on the privilege that allowed me to hire lawyers for my own sons’ minor traffic violations, while many in that room faced the daunting task of representing themselves, often at the cost of a day’s wages. A wave of discomfort washed over me.
Bond Hearings: A Presumption of Guilt
Next, we stepped into a bond hearing court, where a troubling pattern emerged. Before any discussion of the charges or the individual’s circumstances, the state would list prior convictions—no matter how distant or minor. This initial focus on past mistakes seemed to cast a shadow of assumed guilt before any fair consideration in the proceedings had even begun.
A Trial Unveils Injustice
Our final stop was a trial without a jury, where a young Black man stood accused of threatening a police officer. Despite compelling arguments from his defense attorney that pointed to his innocence, the judge swiftly pronounced him guilty. The defendant’s gaze met ours as he left the courtroom, and in that moment, we felt the weight of the system’s injustice.
But our expectations were shattered when the judge swiftly pronounced the defendant “guilty” without apparent deliberation. The young man’s visible distress left a lasting impact on our group. As he left the courtroom, his gaze fell on our group of white attendees, and in that moment, we felt the weight of a racialized system’s injustice. He asked us angrily why we were there. Did we support the police? We wanted to convey our intentions, but instead, we quietly received the frustration he needed to express. We later learned that this marked his first conviction.
Inequities Woven into the System
Throughout the day, it became painfully evident that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects people of color and those with limited financial means. These individuals are at the mercy of a system where outcomes hinge on the decisions of magistrates, the dispositions of judges, the capabilities of court-appointed lawyers, and their own financial resources. Language barriers further compounded the difficulties, spiraling many deeper into the system, and further away from justice.
The Complexity of Social Systems
My day in court impressed on me the vastness of what a “system” is. The interlocking set of people and processes participating in the criminal courts seemed to work beyond any one person’s ability to influence or control it.
The criminal justice system, like other social systems, operates with intricate complexity. Unlike biological or ecological systems, social systems are intangible and often hidden from direct observation. These systems consist of interconnected relationships, processes, and patterns that persist over time.
Sociologists would define any large social system as:
a patterned and interconnected network of relationships between people, groups, and organizations. The elements and processes of a system interact with and affect one another, often in ways we cannot see. Although systems can overlap and even conflict with one another, they are said to be “systemic” when they routinely reproduce themselves in a relatively coherent and sustaining manner.*
Restorative Justice: A Viable Alternative
The U.S. criminal justice system is a social system whose purpose is to enforce a legal code. Criminologists provide decades of research revealing that the code is often interpreted and applied selectively, and it affects different people in dramatically different ways.
Our two attorney guides called it the criminal “punishment” system rather than the criminal justice system – telling us that from their decades of experience that the system is more punitive than just. The Brennan Center for Justice defines criminal punishment as: “the infliction of human suffering under the color of law…a coercive relationship between an authority and those subject to its jurisdiction.” And research on crime deterrence shows that increasing the severity of punishment does little to prevent crime or make anyone safer.
Many within the criminal justice system advocate for a shift towards “Restorative Justice.” As described by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Restorative Justice conceives of justice as ‘repair’ to the harm caused by crime and conflict. By focusing on repair, restorative justice defines ‘justice’ in a radically different way than conventional criminal justice responses that center on the punishment of an individual. It’s a system that focuses on the rehabilitation of individuals through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
This was an important paradigm shift for me.
Have we lost our way by accepting a system that orients on punishment, giving us a false sense of safety and justice, rather than on restoration and healing?
So can we change social systems like the criminal justice system, given their complex and often invisible nature? In her transformative 1989 paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, scholar Peggy McIntosh wrote: “To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.”
Adam Kahane, an expert in social impact and global transformation, proposes the concept of “radical collaboration” as a means of achieving transformative change within complex social systems. In this talk he shares the concept:
Radical collaboration is a way of working together with diverse others to transform social systems that engages three universal human drives: love and power and justice. All three of these drives are present in all social systems. If you’re trying to transform a social system and you aren’t able to grasp and work with all of these drives, then you will find yourself confused and frustrated.
Love is the essence of collaboration [that] involves people coming together. [It is meant] in the sense suggested by theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote: “Love is the drive towards the unity of the separated.”
Power in this sense does not mean primarily power-over, but rather power-to. Power arises from the reality of the autonomy, agency, and ambition of each and every [part of the whole].
Justice arises from the reality that an unfair social system prevents people from participating as peers and that such unfairness produces a drive to transform that system.
Many people focus only on love or power or justice.
- Working only with love—ignoring power and justice—produces results that are, as Dr. Martin Luther King put it, sentimental and anemic.
- Working only with power—ignoring love and justice—produces results that are reckless and abusive.
- And working only with justice—ignoring love and power—produces results that are legalistic and sterile. Working with love, power, and justice together is never easy because these three drives are in permanent tension.
Kahane further says:
This model of love, power, and justice doesn’t give us a recipe for social transformation: it gives us a map of the social territory we are in, so that we can understand what is happening, and a set of practices for making our way through this territory, so that we can transform what is happening.
The Path Forward
My day in court left me with profound questions about the potential for change within complex social systems. While the task may seem daunting, understanding these systems is essential for effecting meaningful change. What we saw that day opened a window into the criminal “punishment” system and is driving our group toward Restorative Justice. Our Criminal Justice affinity group is now taking steps to engage with local leaders and organizations, gather information, and explore ways to bring about incremental change. We’re considering an initiative for a jail support ministry, aiming to provide assistance to those caught within Charlotte’s criminal justice system.
In this journey toward transformation, the takeaway seems clear: to work toward Restorative Justice and away from criminal punishment, to operate within the model of love, power, and justice, and to play our part in challenging a system that often falls short of its promise. Through empathy, compassion, and collective effort, we hope to take our place as one part of the whole and contribute to the reshaping of a system that too often perpetuates injustice.
* Definition of “System” from Dr. Gerardo Martí, Professor of Sociology, Davidson College