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Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Amy Bach has written about how people in the criminal justice system can suffer from empathy/justice fatigue a form of neural adaptation where they become desensitized to injustice. She gives four rather extreme examples of this process.

An unjust outcome can be the result of wrongful arrest, charge, conviction, sentencing, incarceration and revocation of parole/probation. The most frequent unjust outcome would be a wrongful arrest on a simple misdemeanor where the person arrested quickly discovers that their least costly option is to plead guilty, pay the fine and move on. Complaints about the police are investigated by the police and in the vast majority of the cases the officer is upheld. Anyone who pleads not guilty to a simple misdemeanor risks annoying the judge, prosecutor and public defender who all think their time is being wasted.

Charging errors are fairly common and they should be detected and corrected as early in the process as possible. The only real supervision of plea-bargaining is by the judge and if the judge has a large case load supervision is probably cursory. Sentencing is very complex process and it is easy to make a sentencing error (in some states the Department of Correction will discover sentencing errors and send the prisoner back to court for re-sentencing). One possible reason for a wrongful incarceration is because of a faulty/waived pre-sentence investigation.

The system is a confederation of independent governmental and non-governmental agencies with a common set of clients. There is no oversight and no effective constituency and no single entity has the authority to fix stuff that is broken. I hope Amy Bach has made it harder for people to claim "The system does not need to be fixed because it is not broken."
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Ms Bach's book is brilliantly written and researched and is accessible to non-lawyers, like me. Within the first few pages I had a dramatically new perspective on our legal system. I knew there were immense inequities in our legal safety net, but did not realize the degree. Well done.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
What a comprehensive and eye opening look at the problems with the American justice system that fly below the radar. I hope that every judge reads this!

" "Ordinary injustice results when a community of legal professionals becomes so accustomed to a pattern of lapses that they can no longer see their role in them."

It's the book I would have written about Maine ... if I could write at all."

- Robert J. Ruffner
Director
Maine Indigent Defense Center
[...]
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Attorney and journalist Amy Bach spent eight years investigating injustice in our court systems. I'm not talking about the individual instances of injustice that we've all read about in the past - false confessions, dirty cops, or the wrongful conviction of the innocent.

Instead of merely focusing on individuals, Bach investigated the systematic lapses in our court system and shows the reader how justice can fail throughout the entire legal process.

As she notes in her introduction:

This book examines how state criminal trial courts regularly permit basic failures of legal process, such as the mishandling of a statutory allegation. Ordinary injustice results when a community of legal professionals becomes so accustomed to a pattern of lapses that they can no longer see their role in them. There are times when an alarming miscarriage of justice does come to light and exposes the complacency within the system, but in such instances the public often blames a single player, be it a judge, a prosecutor, or a defense attorney. The point of departure for each chapter in this book is the story of one individual who has found himself condemned in this way. What these examples show, however, is that pinning the problem on any one bad apple fails to indict the tree from which it fell. While it is convenient to isolate misconduct, targeting an individual only obscures what is truly going on from the scrutiny change requires. This system involves too many players to hold one accountable for the routine injustice happening in courtrooms across America.

The book is divided into four sections. The first deals with Robert E. Surrency, a public defender in Green County, Georgia who pled most of his clients guilty - even though he had little or no clear idea of the facts involved in their cases. In four years, Surrency took just fourteen of his 1493 cases to trial. From his point of view, that was acceptable because plea bargaining was "a uniquely productive way to do business."

What soon becomes apparent is that this type of defense is widely acceptable in that court system and is even applauded by certain judges there who claimed that "slow justice is no justice." Surrency was so inundated with clients that he was sometimes not even in court when his clients pled guilty - he was speaking with other defendants in the hallway while a lawyer who knew even less about the cases stood in for him.

The next section deals with Henry R. Bauer, a city court judge in Troy, New York who, despite being removed from office for judicial misconduct, was still one of the most popular men in the city. Though widely known as a congenial and decent man, and having a stellar reputation as a judge, Bauer: often failed to inform defendants of their right to a lawyer; set excessive bail; coerced guilty pleas; imposed sentences so excessive as to be illegal; and convicted some defendants without their plea or a trail.

Bach explains in her book that despite these serious failures to uphold the law, most citizens and court personnel believed that Bauer's method of handling cases was preferable to a strict upholding of the law.

The lawyers didn't mind because the judge did most of their work for them, and the community didn't mind because when injustice in the lower courts is ostensibly aimed at keeping the streets safe and the system moving, the only people who suffer are the poor and the neglected -- in short, the lower class.

The problem was that Bauer became overzealous in his attempt to rid the area of crime: he stopped assigning lawyers to defendants who were entitled to them, and he set ridiculously high bails for many minor crimes. He did this for years and no one in the court system complained - until Eric Frazier was sent to jail for stealing items worth $27.77 on fifty thousand dollars bond. Frazier typed a letter of complaint and sent it to the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. After the inquiry, Bauer was removed from office.

Bauer had helped clean up the city all right, but his court had regularly failed to take the elemental steps of deciding which defendants needed a lawyer, what had happened in the case, and whether a crime had actually occurred. And almost no attorney in Troy was willing to admit it. This was a tight-knit community; no one wanted to fess up. In the end, friendship and affability trumped the protection of rights.

Without going into detail, the next section is about a prosecutor in Mississippi who routinely declines to pursue significant criminal matters. One of the cases involved the statutory rape of an eleven-year-old girl. The final section deals with a Chicago prosecutor, his investigators and an entire court system that operates together to achieve a wrongful conviction. Even when it is clear that the conviction was improper, many in the system refused to believe it and failed to take steps to ensure that justice was done.

Bach's book is a wake up call to those who are in any way a part of the criminal justice system: judges, clerks, prosecutors, investigators, defense lawyers, jurors and court personnel. Our criminal system of justice is based on adversarialism. Many of the problems highlighted in this book are a result of people in the system failing to aggressively assert the constitutional rights afforded to defendants.

Collegiality and collaboration are considered the keys to success in most communal ventures, but in the practice of criminal justice they are in fact the cause of system failure. When professional alliances trump adversarialism, ordinary injustice predominates. Judges, defense lawyers, and prosecutors, but also local government, police, and even trial clerks who processed the paperwork, decide the way a case moves through the system, thereby determining what gets treated like a criminal matter and what does not. Through their subtle personal associations, legal players often recast the law to serve what they perceive to be the interests of the wider community or to perpetuate a "we've-always-done-it-this-way" mind-set. Whether through friendship, mutual interest, indifference, incompetence, or willful neglect the players end up not checking each other and thus not doing the job the system needs them to do if justice is to be achieved.

Ordinary Injustice is an eye-opening exposé that every judge, prosecutor and criminal defense attorney should read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
In four reportorial chapters and one author's summary Bach portrays a legal system seriously dysfunctional, broken, and downright frightening. It is both an eye-opener to those of us non-initiates to the legal system (i.e., most of us) and a call for reform, greater transparency, and greater accountability to those it serves: all U.S. citizens.

In easily readable, jargon-free prose Bach manages to both portray the systemic ills and deliver its impact on real people: both defendants and victims of crime. She memorably depicts the harm done to people's lives by this broken system by interviewing those involved and making us understand how it directly affects them. All this in ideologically balanced, well-argued prose which makes the four chapters so memorable and, ultimately, so tragic.

(Think of medical malpractice run wild and unchecked and the damage that would do, and you'll get some idea of how broken the legal system is as portrayed in this book.)

The four chapters cover the criminal legal process at the state, not the federal, level by depicting systemic problems in each:
1. A public defender's system in Georgia.
2. A rogue judge in Troy, New York
3. A ream of deserving but unprosecuted cases in Mississippi
4. A wrongful conviction for murder in Chicago

Each presents the legal system delivering injustice due to ineptness, incompetence, a lack of adequate resources, or unchecked police/prosecutorial zeal and fervor.

Any person who might ever be involved in the U.S. court system should read this book. It's a call for action, now.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is how a book about a problem in our legal system should be written. With fascinating vignettes, Ms Bach makes it clear that although many of the problems' causers are very wrong, they are often almost ignorant of the harm they are doing. I recommend it highly.

Stephen Adler
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This jaw-dropping tour of the criminal justice system in America achieves that rare combination of being both erudite and gripping. Landmark cases in constitutional law are seamlessly interwoven with emotionally-charged personal narratives. Ms. Bach thrives in that critical realm where the abstractness of the Law meets the concrete of a city court. This is an edifying page-turner.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is an elegantly written, vigorously argued book, part courtroom drama, part expose. We all know that the courts don't always produce justice, but this book reveals that the problems go deeper than anyone wants to acknowledge. With our indigent defense system in shambles and with prosecutors accruing more powers than ever before, our system is more arbitrary than adversarial. Bach has issued an impassioned wake up call that policymakers need to answer.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
If you think the health care system in this country is broken, wait to you read this book. Through a series of riveting, up-close stories, Bach shows that our courts produce more injustice than justice.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Highly readable page turner. I'm sure this will become a staple in college and law school classes for years to come.
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