We tell our kids about the bogeyman, the bad people –who to watch out for- but we don’t teach them how to watch out for the judicial system.
– Troilyn Robinson – Mother of two incarcerated sons – Unprisoned Podcast – (stories from the system) – March 2, 2016
One of the common threads in practically all exonerees personal stories is that prior to their arrests and convictions (and sometimes right up through them) they believed in the system. They repeat again and again, that they went along with the police, they went along with their public defender, they went along with ‘the system’ thinking and trusting that there’s no way they could be convicted of the crimes for which they knew they were innocent. It isn’t until it’s too late (for them) that they finally realize that- wait a minute- the system is absolutely and terribly flawed.
I believe that we as a society still generally hold to this belief- this faith- in our system. Most Americans still believe that by-and-large the justice system works- Americans trust that most of the time the system produces true justice. I believe that this continued faith in the system leaves many just as vulnerable to ‘the system’ as those now exonerated were those years ago when they were mere ‘persons of interest’ or the ‘accused on trial’. We have to learn from experience, even the experience of others. We have to learn from the past three decades of Innocence work, begun in 1992 with the first Innocence Project. The research, the data, the cases, the exonerations, the commutations, the reversals, the Alford pleas, the junk science, the documentaries, the podcasts, the news reports of actually innocent people finally being set free… all of these instances need to inform our understanding of the true reality of our criminal justice system today.
It’s only with a healthy respect for the system that we can protect ourselves from the system. By healthy respect I mean in the same way one has a healthy respect for the ocean- as a terrible, impersonal, and powerful entity- an entity able to (sometimes out of nowhere) reach up out of its bounds and drag someone down into its depths. This healthy respect for the system enables us as citizens to not only protect ourselves but it also allows us to interact with the system in the most meaningful and beneficial ways. There’s nearly 2,000 cases listed on the National Registry of Exonerations– it’s these stories that ought to inform not only our legal decisions, but also our voting, our jury service, and our advocacy.
The importance of the criminal justice system is not only relevant for those facing charges. No, indeed. The importance of our criminal justice, more and more, is intimately tied to State power, citizens’ rights, and the juxtaposition between the two. Anyone who cares about a cause, an issue, or has something for which they hold strong conviction, must be concerned with how the State sets itself with or against that cause. How the State upholds (or tears down), how the State agrees (or disagrees), how the State protects (or attacks) your particular worldview and issue(s) will very much color the way our criminal justice system works (or doesn’t) for you.
With this in consideration, I believe that it would not be outlandish at all to begin teaching the importance of criminal justice issues to our children. Teaching a healthy respect for all human institutions, understanding their utility as well as their shortcomings, their incompetencies, their potential for doing harm, and why we all must not only be wary for ourselves, but most especially for the benefit of those most vulnerable and unaware.
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