The country watched with bated breath the entirety of last month’s trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, which provided a much-needed spotlight on the functioning of the criminal justice system in this country.
Every agonizing aspect of a criminal trial was on full display for the world to watch. As the judge instructed the jury about their responsibilities and what evidence they would be able to rely on during deliberations, CNN’s Jake Tapper facetiously tweeted: “Jurors in the Chauvin trial were instructed that there is no court transcript available for them to review so they will have to use their notes, which would seem a reasonable thing to say if it were 1821.”
In 25 years of practice as a prosecutor in two states, I have heard the same request from countless jurors, and the answer is always the same as it was in the Chauvin case: instantaneous transcripts are never provided. In today’s technologically advanced world, that answer feels like a relic of antiquated times.
The reality is that instant transcripts are not available, because among other reasons, they are regarded as simply too costly and the criminal justice system is not adequately funded.
Appropriately, there is much conversation across the country about criminal justice reform and the need to focus on racial justice. Racial justice must be the priority of any reforms. But an overhaul of the justice system should not stop there.
We must ask why the actors and systems in the justice system suffer from chronic underfunding. Lawyers at both district attorneys offices and public defenders earn significantly less than their private practice counterparts.
Do judges and prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and court staff have access to industry experts for professional development and implicit bias training? Are public defenders able to have access to interpreters and experts on cultural competency? What about trainings on trauma and victimization?
Immediate transcripts, clean and safe courthouses, access to cutting edge technology are not available to most jurisdictions and there is a real cost for that: Those who suffer the most from the criminal justice systems’ low-priority funding are the victims.
Nowhere is the issue of prioritizing funding more apparent than here in Colorado as the legislature debates House Bill 1280, titled “Pre-trial Detention Reform.” This legislation — sponsored by Reps. Steven Woodrow, D-Denver, and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver — seeks to prevent people from spending unnecessary time in jail.
When people are arrested, they have a right to appear before a judge to set bond and release them until their next court date. On its face, that would seem to match with basic constitutional rights. Here’s the rub: Folks arrested on Fridays or weekends are not able to see a judge until Monday morning.
Fixing this problem is simple but costly: Weekend court.
If we care about reforming the system, we have to put our money where our mouth is. Adequate funding for weekend court includes judges, court clerks, deputies, prosecutors and public defenders.
But let’s not stop there. HB 1280 should be funded to include weekend services for victims, such as victim advocates and full-service family justice centers, which are usually only available for emergency needs on the weekend.
Victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and elder abuse across the country do not all receive the same care they deserve. They do not all have access to child advocacy centers, specialized medical professionals, family justice centers, and experienced prosecutors who can make sure that their cases are properly presented to the jury.
Do victims receive justice differently depending on where they were raped or assaulted? Would the George Floyd verdict have been different if it were tried in a different jurisdiction? If the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” then we have a serious problem in the administration of real justice in this country.
If different victims receive different justice based on their different geographic, socioeconomic, racial or sexual identity status, then that is not justice. Lady Justice is blind for a reason — it should not matter who stands before her; all should receive the same fair and equitable justice.
We need to be mindful of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wisdom that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
HB 1280 is an important step for equitable justice reform. Let us also seize the moment and advocate for comprehensive justice reform, making sure that our most vulnerable victims remain protected as well.
Our legislature should examine victim-rights laws like Marsy’s Law and reallocate funding so that the systems and people who are on the front lines of the justice battle have the resources they need to fight for those who have been victimized.
We are at a unique place in time where we can make important and meaningful changes to the justice system, a system that is at the core of our democracy. Poet Amanda Gorman delivered a call to action in her address at the presidential inauguration when she stated: “we are not broken but simply unfinished.”
The time is now to finish and fix our justice system, ensuring fairness for all who appear at its doorsteps.
Leora Joseph is general counsel and chief administrative officer at the Auraria Higher Education Center. Formerly she was managing chief deputy district attorney for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
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