A lawyer-journalist examines the shocking gap between theory and practice in the everyday administration of criminal justice.
In the tradition of Lincoln Steffens, Bach’s investigative reporting works not so much to expose individual rogues and villains, but rather to examine how American institutions, in this case the criminal-justice system, fall so far short of our ideals. To demonstrate the erosion of our society’s commitment to fairness, and to illustrate the systemic problem of legal professionals so accustomed to lazy and expedient collusion that they cannot see themselves at fault, Bach usefully focuses on four state criminal-court stories. She introduces us to a Georgia public defender who fails to investigate the facts of various charges and neglects even to meet with clients until the moment he plea bargains their cases. The author examines an upstate New York judge who often doesn’t inform defendants of their right to counsel, regularly imposes excessive bail and frequently coerces guilty pleas from the scared and befuddled who come before him. Bach looks at a Mississippi prosecutor who declines to prosecute bloody crimes and an Illinois prosecutor, caught up in an intraoffice drive to convict, who takes thin cases to trial. In each instance there are reasons, many understandable and fairly set out by Bach, as to why these lapses routinely occur. But to work properly, the justice system requires a zealous defense, an attentive prosecution and an impartial judge enforcing rules of evidence and procedure. Numerous Supreme Court decisions, many effortlessly translated here for the nonprofessional, offer a roadmap for proper practice. Instead, only the roughest sort of justice is meted out, and very few appear to notice or care. To address the problem, Bach calls for greater transparency and outside monitoring of the court system, but at a time when some states are verging on bankruptcy and the budgets of many others are strained to breaking, this widespread pattern of injustice will likely persist.
A clear exposure of a dirty secret well known to lawyers and apt to outrage everyone else.