Justice is supposed to be blind, fair and equal. But most Americans realize that our criminal justice system does not always live up to these promises. Sometimes, “blind” justice is unfair because of sentencing laws and guidelines that impose a punishment based on technical details of a crime and give no consideration to the context.
In other cases, leaving sentencing discretion completely up to a judge is unfair because some judges are more interested in advancing their own agenda than in ensuring that the sentence they hand down is appropriate For these reasons, we need safeguards in place, including the ability to appeal an unfair verdict or sentence.
A good example comes from Illinois. In December, an appellate court cut a 12-year prison sentence down to the statutory minimum of six years for a homeless man who had been convicted of stealing $44 in change from a vending machine. In 2012, the man had been stopped by police on a state university campus, and they discovered that he had stolen the money from a campus vending machine using a wire coat hanger.
The man had not broken into any buildings, he didn’t harm anyone, he had no weapon and he didn’t even damage the vending machine. But because he had 28 past convictions (all non-violent and most involving petty theft), a judge called him a “career thief” and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
Thankfully, the appellate court recently reduced that disproportionately harsh sentence to six years, which was still arguably disproportionate but was nonetheless the statutory minimum sentence available. If the man had committed the same crime not on a school campus, his sentence could have been less than one year.
As we mentioned in the beginning of this post, the criminal justice system will never be perfect. Humans make mistakes and sentencing laws often limit the ability of judges to consider the full context of a crime and the offender who committed it.
So how can you protect yourself in the criminal justice system? While it was likely not an option for this homeless defendant, hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is one of the best ways to ensure that your rights are not violated and that you receive fair and appropriate treatment. The justice system won’t always get things right, but you can at least have a strong legal advocate fighting for your best interests at all times.