The American Criminal Justice System: Basically, You’re Fucked

That headline is not hyperbole. You absolutely do not want to get involved in the American criminal justice system. It’s basically a one-way street to being proper fucked, and nobody really seems to care whether you actually did anything wrong.

First, of course, the cops might just shoot you while trying to arrest you. FiveThirtyEight reports that police shoot somewhere between 930–1,240 people a year, some by mistake. (And no, there is no war on cops. Police officers are safer than ever.)

Assuming you are delivered more or less safely to jail, you’ll have to pay bail or post a bond. If you are too poor, you’ll be jailed for it. Let John Oliver explain it while you chuckle with dismay:

But don’t worry, you’ll be entitled to a public defender — who is overworked, underpaid, might be working in squalid conditions, doesn’t have the resources to build a proper case, and might pressure you to plead guilty because really what other viable option is there. Oh, and you might owe a bill for the public defender’s services, which you could be arrested (again) for not paying. John Oliver on public defenders:

Then there are civil forfeiture, mandatory minimums, debtors’ prisons, solitary confinement, and more. That’s even without taking into account crooked cops and misbehaving prosecutors who won’t be held accountable. The American criminal justice system is like a poorly maintained conveyor belt to prison that keeps injuring innocent bystanders.

And even in the best-case scenario, where you don’t get shot by the police and you have the money to make bail and hire a lawyer and it all proves to be a big misunderstanding, you’re still probably going to end up jobless and tens of thousands of dollars poorer.

I realize this is a short post with no solutions. All I know to do is be angry and (hopefully) shine more light on the problem. If you want to learn more, check out the criminal-law bloggers in the ABA Blawg 100 Hall of Fame, which lists blogs written by veteran criminal-defense lawyers who have been pointing out these problems since long before John Oliver started explaining them with Garfield videos. Also, call your representatives. Nothing is going to change without them.

And cross your fingers you never wind up in the American criminal justice system.

Sam Glover
Sam Glover is the founder & CTO of He is the co-author of the bestselling book The Small Firm Roadmap and is the host of the weekly Lawyerist Podcast.

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