By Geneviéve Jones-Wright
We say a lot that the system is broken, and in some ways it is. But the truth is that in most ways, the system is working exactly as it was intended to work. There’s a reason the 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves after the Civil War, makes an exception for those who have committed a crime.
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The American criminal justice system was created to cause pain, not to heal trauma. That’s the source of a lot of our problems.
In the course of my twelve years practicing criminal law as a public defender in San Diego there has always been one universal truth that applies to every case I have seen and every client I have worked with: Hurt people hurt people.
Regardless of where you grew up, you learned the concepts of right and wrong. There’s a reason we teach kids in schools about breaking cycles of violence. Although we haven’t always known the science behind it, there has long been a visible correlation between childhood trauma and future criminal behavior.
I’m not dismissing crime. I have seen the damage caused by horrific acts of violence, and those crimes should be punished.
However, I have also seen many people who committed petty crime but escalated their offenses as a direct result of being introduced to our system. This escalation could have been prevented had their trauma been treated rather than multiplied by punitive measures. (We see this most when we expose children and low-level offenders to more hardened criminals through incarceration.)
There are also those horrific cases where the District Attorney’s Office prosecutes an innocent person for a crime they did not commit. Not only is that person’s life devastated but the victim never gets justice.
I Represent The Innocent
I remember representing a mother who was in danger of losing her daycare license after being prosecuted for child abuse. Her teenage daughter told school officials, then child protective services workers, how her mother would discipline her harshly and even abuse her with hangers. She had the physical bruises to prove it. She even told the jurors her horror stories.
But, they were all lies. The bruises were self inflicted. She took an oath and lied all for the sake of getting around a mother she thought was too strict for not letting her be on social media. The jury saw through it and acquitted the mother. Some jurors even stayed after the trial to thank my client for being such a good mother.
But because she was arrested for the charges, my client still was in jeopardy of losing her livelihood as a childcare worker. I filed motions for factual innocence and to seal my client’s arrest record. The trial judge granted the motions and now her life won’t be ruined because of false allegations and an arrest that should have never happened.
A District Attorney should understand that everyone accused is not always guilty.
I Represent Hurt People
I cannot recall how many times I’ve represented clients who were so traumatized that they acted feloniously. I remember the case of a younger brother who had gone his whole life being abused, intimidated, and beaten down by his older brother. The abuse did not stop even after they entered adulthood. One night, my client took a gun and shot his brother in their home. The shot was not fatal, nor did he intend for it to be. Nonetheless, he drew a gun and fired at his brother, hitting him in the leg.
It was the unfortunate cumulative effect of years of abuse. Unlike my client, the victim was a well-renowned professional and had a stellar reputation in his field. But, he also had a drinking problem that would trigger him to exact violence on his younger brother. I learned from the victim himself that he had been a bully to his younger brother, my client, since childhood and was still bullying him well into into their 40s.
I presented this mitigating evidence to the court and to the deputy district attorney who was handling the case. I pleaded my client’s case. At my urging, the court sentenced my client to probation, with no further jail time. Both my client and the victim started counseling to address their traumas and began treatment.
A District Attorney should recognize that since hurt people hurt people, the justice system should allow wounds to be healed when possible. A District Attorney should also consider, with every case, that the victims deputy district attorneys fight for today may very well be the defendants they prosecute tomorrow. If we don’t acknowledge that hurt people hurt people, that outcome only increases.
I have represented countless people who have lost their jobs and their homes as a result of our money bail system. Our current bail system demands that you sit in jail if you are poor and cannot afford bail, even if you are not a danger to society. A District Attorney should grasp that our outdated system perpetuates poverty and the cycle of crime which gives rise to the escalation of offenses. A District Attorney should, therefore, implement policies that would reduce the likelihood of these scenarios playing out everyday.
I Represent Guilty People
In the span of the last five years, I touched roughly 2,200 cases as a deputy public defender.
Of course, I’ve represented guilty people. And I am proud that even in cases where a crime was committed, I provided my clients with stellar legal representation–well above the competence standard that our federal Constitution guarantees. Yes, I have represented murderers and rapists. You’ve read about some of the cases in the news. Even in cases where a crime was committed, like in the “Balboa Park rape case,” my experience in protecting Constitutional rights in even the most severe cases gives me a balanced perspective on the criminal justice system.
A District Attorney should never forfeit rights for convictions. A District Attorney must understand that every single person has the right to a fair trial and equal justice under the law. A District Attorney must understand that there are no exceptions to this rule.
Years after John Adams defended British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, in which American civilians were killed by British soldiers, he wrote that it was “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.”
John Adams knew that legal defense work may at times be unpopular, but it is required. And I too believe that the role of the criminal defense attorney is noble, just, and necessary to protect society from tyranny.
A District Attorney should never demonize defense attorneys for doing their job. A District Attorney should recognize that public defenders play an integral role in our justice system as we, defense attorneys, are embedded in the Constitution to protect individuals from our all-powerful government. A District Attorney should never politicize victims. The District Attorney should recognize that a person who survives a rape or sexual assault will never look favorably upon their experience with a defense attorney–no matter how much compassion was shown to the victim during the process and especially during cross-examination.
The criminal justice system as it now stands lacks balance. It lacks a holistic view of the human condition and the scientific view of the human brain. It lacks awareness of its own prejudice and the systematic barriers it puts into place for entire communities, trapping people in poverty and a status of otherness for generations.
As long as we keep thinking we can arrest and jail our way out of our problems, we won’t make our communities safer. This thinking will continue to waste taxpayer dollars by cycling the same people through the system over and over again, or worse, warehousing people permanently in our prisons, all because this thinking will never get to the root causes of recidivism.
Throughout our history, prosecutors have measured success in arrests and convictions. They’ve made a huge mistake that has come at a massive human cost. The true measure of success in criminal justice should be how many people we keep from entering the system in the first place and how many people we restore to keep them from returning to it.
I’m asking the voters of San Diego County to reimagine the criminal justice system. To change it into a system focused more on healing and prevention than punishment and retribution. To build a system that holds everyone to the same standard and does not bring down the hammer on some, while turning a blind eye to others. To prevent the harm that is caused by separating families and the public health crisis that is mass incarceration. To work together across communities to increase public safety without sacrificing our Constitutional rights.
Now is time for change. The status quo is failing us. We can no longer sit back while our so-called leaders recycle old ideas that have left us unsafe. Yes, prioritizing low-level, nonviolent offenses is dangerous. Hate crimes, elder abuse, and violent crimes like rape, robbery, and aggravated assault are all on the rise in our county. The old way of thinking has not made our communities safer.
We need creativity, not conventional wisdom. We need leadership, not laziness. We need advocacy, not apathy. We need a criminal justice system that works for everyone.
Geneviéve Jones-Wright is a deputy public defender and candidate for District Attorney of San Diego County.
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