The Criminal Justice System Isn’t the Path to Justice

It’s been two weeks since we wrapped up my favorite class at Spring Arbor: Spirituality, Faith, and Justice. It’s a hodgepodge of approaches trying to articulate a Christian approach to Justice. We explore issues of The Common Good, Utilitarianism, Reconciliation, Privilege, Kenosis, and Power.

At the beginning of the semester, I usually have several students who define Justice as something related to the Criminal Justice System. Justice means that people get what they deserve, that they atone for their wrongdoing, and that the wronged parties receive some form of closure.

I write this as many of my social media friends are struggling with the decision of the Cuyahoga Country grand jury not to indict the officers who shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice. It’s been a mere two weeks since a Baltimore judge declared a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury in the case of the first officer tried in the Freddie Gray death. Both of these are reminders of the outrage resulting when Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown. While not involving a police officer, it also reminds us of the anguish when George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin.

I understand the pain and anguish. I get the acknowledgement of Injustice. I just don’t believe the criminal justice system is the avenue for bringing justice to bear.


Atticus Finch taught us that in To Kill a Mockingbird. Anyone who heard his arguments in defense of Tom Robinson knew that justice required Tom to go free. Yet he was convicted just as the local criminal justice system expected he would be.

There are limitations built into the criminal justice system that make it a poor avenue for pursuing social justice in cases like Tamir Rice or Freddie Gray. These include the requirement to prove intent on the part of the police officers or to demonstrate willful malice. It includes a “rational man” defense which presumes the officer was acting within his training and responsibility unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary (as it was in the Walter Scott shooting in South Carolina). It requires a decision path that clearly shows that the officer was acting improperly with the certain knowledge that death would result. None of the characteristics make it easy to get an indictment. And even if one were to occur (as in Baltimore) getting a conviction is simply that much harder.

If not the criminal justice approach, what’s left? Is it sufficient to rely on the federal government to explore eventual civil rights violations? The Ferguson report on financial dealings was some great work by the Justice Department but takes too long and can only be applied sporadically.

Here are some random thoughts.

First, we must broaden the coalition around the Black Lives Matter organizations. It has been too easy for critics to make false claims about groups opposed to police. That is not the point. It’s about police misconduct and a systemic willful blindness that creates the situations in question.

Consider the protests in Minneapolis the weekend before Christmas. Groups protested at the Mall of America and then at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. This was not only a strategic protest in the midst of Christmas shopping and holiday travel. It was also remarkably diverse. Look at these pictures posted by Minnesota Public Radio (#8 is my favorite — I share a screen shot below). These are white protestors who are very unlikely to have an officer decide they are an imminent threat and then respond with force. It is their voices and bodies that must be on the line.

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 11.38.14 PM

I watched Selma the other day. I don’t know the historicity of this interaction but there is a scene where MLK is talking to leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“snick”). He tells them that they have been working “to raise the consciousness of the black man” while he “has been working to raise the consciousness of the white man, specifically the white man in the White House”.

When the death of a black child or the death of a black grandmother is met with national outrage and a demand for action and accountability coming from all quarters, we begin to see changes. It may be crass, but one thing that is certain is that political office-holders are pretty good at finding ways of responding when public attention turns their way (looking at you, Rahm).

Another avenue of promise lies in what happened this fall on college campuses in the face of administrative inaction regarding racial microagressions (and some not-so-micro). Demands for changes in policy and even leadership were heard, especially when the Missouri football team threatened not to play if changes weren’t forthcoming. This is another lesson that can be seen in the Minneapolis protests. They targeted their protests in the areas that would demand a response due to their disruptive nature.

In addition, we need to address the question of organizational culture in some police departments. After video of the Laquan McDonald shooting was released in Chicago last month, the Tribune included this in their editorial.

Think back to the decades of systematic torture of suspects at the hands of Cmdr. Jon Burge and his crew, as prosecutors and police supervisors looked the other way. That stain will be with us for a long, long time.

But the city also has a poor record for dealing with everyday allegations of police misconduct, from unprofessional behavior to unnecessary force.

A Tribune review of four years’ worth of complaints against police officers found that just over 4 percent were sustained, and in nearly half of those cases, the officer was given a reprimand or a “violation noted.” That’s it.

Again, self-interest works. To change the culture, we must adjust the reward structure. If there is an officer-related shooting, it should be in the permanent record of all of that officer’s supervisors. That, in turn, should be related to the supervisor’s promotion or retention. The kind of transparency brought by technology (both video and data) can have far-reaching cultural impacts.

Finally (for now), we need to address the inequalities that provide the context of most of these deadly encounters. Chicago has a pretty good track record of not having police shootings in Winetka. What is it about depressed neighborhoods that makes officers more likely to believe a young boy was a lethal threat?

Yesterday I saw this profile of sociologist William Julius Wilson who though turning 80 is still leading the field in untangling the relationships between race, class, the economy, and criminal justice. Wilson says:

“We should be cognizant of the choices available to inner-city families and residents in high jobless inner-city black neighborhoods,” he says, “because they live under constraints and face challenges that most people in the larger society do not experience, or can’t even imagine.”

This, of course, connects us back to the criminal justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline. When we begin to recognize these realities and identify them as problems that we will exercise our personal power to engage, then we can begin the path toward Justice.

2 thoughts on “The Criminal Justice System Isn’t the Path to Justice

    1. Thanks for sharing, Richard. I hadn’t seen this piece, but from what I skimmed it’s right on track of some of the challenges in the system. But as I’ve been telling folks in other venues, even when everything works perfectly the likelihood of an officer conviction is slim except in the most unambiguous cases.

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