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Broken U.S. Justice System

Updated on May 25, 2015
Silva Hayes profile image

Silva has a background as a technical writer and in addition to how-to articles she writes about cooking, travel, and personal experiences.

How is our criminal justice system failing us and what do we need to do to fix it?

Justice is blind
Justice is blind
Protect all children
Protect all children

Many US citizens believe that our broken criminal justice system desperately needs reform.

To begin my research for this hub, I first typed into Google: Who is responsible for fixing our broken criminal justice system?

Then I realized that first I need to define our criminal justice system. Is it one thing? Or is it a many-headed hydra? I quickly found that it is indeed. I changed my search to: What is our criminal justice system?

I learned that our criminal justice system consists of three main parts:

Law Enforcement (police),

Adjudication (the courts), and

Corrections (jails, prisons, probation and parole).

In the US, there are separate federal, state, and military criminal justice systems, and each state has separate systems for adults and juveniles.

I will focus on the adjudication part of the system because it seems that a lot of major discrepancies occur in this area -- the failure of the system to focus its resources on the appropriate criminals, the way inappropriate offenders are let out early, the way bail commissioners and bail judges won’t keep dangerous offenders in jail pending trial, and most of all, disparity in sentencing.

What criminal court should prosecute a crime? If the crime happens in one state, it is typically a state crime, unless it is an expressly named federal crime. But if a crime occurs throughout many states, or crosses state lines, it often becomes a federal crime.

The differences between federal and state crimes can be complicated.

State crimes typically violate state laws, such as murder, traffic violations, and other areas where conduct is completely encompassed in the state. Federal crimes are specific federal offenses, such as IRS violations, mail fraud, kidnapping, counterfeiting, damaging or destroying mailboxes, and immigration offenses.

When it could be either one, the US Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” states that federal law trumps state law, and the federal authorities will take over.

Jurisdiction in a federal court is typically held by the federal district near where the crime was committed. In state court, jurisdiction is held by the county in which the crime was committed.

Federal courts have criminal jurisdiction in five types of cases:

• offenses against the federal government or its inherent interests

• criminal activity with substantial multi-state or international aspects

• criminal activity involving complex commercial or institutional enterprises most effectively prosecuted using federal resources or expertise

• serious, high-level or widespread state or local government corruption

• criminal cases raising highly sensitive local issues.

Under the U.S. Constitution, states are supposed to have primary jurisdiction over crime. When Congress federalizes state crimes unnecessarily, it wastefully duplicates taxpayer-financed state law enforcement, prosecutorial, and judicial efforts. It overloads the federal courts with cases that do not belong there. It subverts the fundamental constitutional system of federalism, or state and local government prerogatives. Often there is no positive impact on the crime problem that the federal proposal was supposed to alleviate.

The U.S. Attorney General is a presidential appointee. The US Attorney General is a member of the President’s cabinet and as head of the Department of Justice, is the top law enforcement officer in the country.

The states and territories, as well as the capital of Washington, D.C. also have attorneys general with similar responsibilities. The majority of state attorneys general are chosen by popular election. As elected officials -- and politicians -- Attorneys General almost inevitably will make political calculations about cases.

States can organize their judicial systems differently from the federal judiciary, as long as they protect the constitutional right of their citizens to procedural due process. Most have a trial level court, generally called a District Court or Superior Court, a first-level appellate court, generally called a Court of Appeal, and a Supreme Court.

However, Oklahoma and Texas have separate highest courts for criminal appeals. In New York, the trial court is called the Supreme Court. Appeals are then taken to the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, and from there to the Court of Appeals.

Most states base their legal system on English common law with the exception of Louisiana, which draws large parts of its legal system from French civil law.

A few states have their judges on the state's courts serve for life terms. Most of the state judges, including the justices on the highest court in the state, are either elected or appointed for terms of a limited number of years, such as five years. They can often be then re-elected or reappointed if their performance has been judged to be satisfactory.

Federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, regardless of location. State court cases will follow the procedures outlined by state law.

Typically, the main differences in these procedures are the use and non-use of grand juries, how filing and discovery of evidence is conducted, and how the trial proceeds.

Federal judges sentence defendants using the Sentencing Guidelines — a complex set of rules promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, under general guidance from Congress. Judges may “depart” from the Guidelines, either downward by giving a lower sentence or upward with a higher sentence. They are only supposed to depart, though, in exceptional cases.

I see the same phrase pop up again and again: "The criminal justice system in the US is like one huge ATM machine." Why? Case in point: Mark Ciavarella, a former juvenile court judge in Luzerne, Penn., was convicted of sentencing hundreds of kids convicted of minor offenses to harsh, for-profit detention centers in exchange for millions in kickbacks from the centers' owners. The jury convicted Ciaverella, 61, of 12 counts, including racketeering and conspiracy, in one of the most stunning cases of judicial corruption in the state's history. Ciaveralla was booted off the bench in Luzerne County two years ago after prosecutors first accused him and a second judge, Michael Conahan, of running the "cash for kids" scandal. Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Example of questions we should be asking:

Are District Court judges necessary? Do they work part-time? Bench time? What else do they do? Do they enjoy bloated benefits?

The orders they sign are prepared by clerks, probation reports are prepared by agents, but surely these judges are humble and thankful for this relative life of ease, aren’t they? No, they exhibit an attitude of entitlement almost like royalty. Every time they get a raise, their pension fund also gets a raise.

A more important question: Who oversees these judges? Apparently they have a lot of leeway in their judgments; otherwise, there would not be such disparity in sentencing.

There are too many instances of the failure of the criminal justice system to focus its resources on the appropriate criminals. Judges bundle cases for lenient plea deals with no objection from the prosecutors, inappropriate offenders are let out early, bail commissioners and bail judges won’t keep dangerous offenders in jail pending trial; the list goes on.

Here’s just one example of a bail judge's failure to keep a dangerous offender in jail pending trial:

“Matt” was observed by a witness trying to hot-wire a car. Matt pulled a gun and pointed it at the witness before he fled to his home. Police arrested Matt and got a search warrant to search his home, where they found cocaine residue. So here we have a man with a gun threatening a witness, attempting to steal a car, and evidence of drug-dealing, which should add up to a threat to society.

The police did not analyze the drug residue by the trial date, so the prosecutor requested a postponement. She could have asked for a short postponement and demanded that the police analyze the drugs. She could have argued that Matt was a danger and needed to stay in jail while they waited for the lab results. She could have tried the case without the drugs.

She did none of these things. The judge reviewed the bail and asked about Matt’s juvenile record. The prosecutor said she didn’t have it but Matt had said he was on probation. Matt’s lawyer asked him what he was on probation for. Marijuana, said Matt. Actually Matt had an assault charge pending. The judge had Matt’s folder but didn’t open it and check. The judge set a low bail and a curfew without specifying who was going to enforce the curfew, and less than a month later, Matt stabbed another boy to death at a party. The criminal justice system had its chance to keep Matt away from the general public and it failed.

The word "system" sounds like something that is carefully planned, coordinated, and regulated. However, in real life, much of the functioning of criminal justice agencies is unplanned, poorly coordinated, and unregulated. Some parts of the system are ancient (jury trials) and others are recent (specialized drug courts). Each institution has its own goals and priorities that sometimes conflict with those of other institutions. Furthermore, the participants have substantial unregulated discretion in making particular decisions (setting of bail and the imposition of sentence, for example).

Disparity in sentencing is a huge issue. There are so many examples I don't even have the heart to attempt to list them here. There are people walking among us who have been convicted of murder more than once. There are others who have been incarcerated 30 years or more for possession of marijuana. Getting tangled up in the criminal justice system is like gambling in Las Vegas. It depends on your lawyer, the judge, the jury, etc.; you may kill your girlfriend in cold blood and get off scot-free, or you may serve only 12 years, or you may spend the rest of your life in prison; it's a gamble!

There are violent murderers being let out early because of overcrowding, yet non-violent men who were arrested with a handful of drugs in their possession are kept in.

Added 1/16/11: A Georgia woman, Amy Rogers Jones, was charged with one count of felony murder and one count of cruelty to children in the first degree in the death of infant Jaci Morgan Rogers whom she was baby-sitting.

On 12/31/10, Amy Rogers Jones was released after serving less than one year for the death of infant Jaci Morgan Rogers.

Jaci Morgan Rogers
9/7/2007 - 1/3/2008
The angels weep

One count of felony murder and one count of cruelty to a child in the first degree = less than 1 year.

I knew a young family years ago who appeared to be living an ideal life. The husband was a computer programmer on a good career path with a major employer. The wife was a beautiful slender blonde who stayed at home with their young daughter, who looked just like her mother. Suddenly I hear on the news that the husband solicited a man in a local bar to kill his wife for her life insurance. The man in the bar was an undercover cop. Shocking, horrible, cold-blooded. I was stunned when the District Judge in Austin (who just retired this year, by the way) gave the husband a deferred adjudication, meaning that he was free to go but if he misbehaved again, he would then be punished. The man tried to have his wife murdered, but nothing was done to punish him! Nothing!

There is another avenue whereby the general public can be protected. Persons found to be mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others are subject to involuntary civil commitment, yet four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals. Such a commitment can lead to indefinite confinement in a secure mental health facility that, from the inmate's perspective, is not much different than a prison. A number of states have expanded these procedures to make it easier to commit sex offenders who have completed their criminal sentences but who are believed to be too dangerous to release into the community. Why isn’t this taken advantage of more often?

Violent criminals – rapists, child molesters, murderers -- guilty beyond any doubt; (they’re on video doing the crime, their DNA samples match, there are several impartial eye witnesses, they have confessed to the crime, etc.), could be loaded in a cargo plane, flown out over the Atlantic Ocean on an as-needed basis, and about 200 miles off-shore, open the bay doors. This way we are not directly responsible for putting them to death. They have a chance of survival (slim, but still a chance). They have more of a chance than their dead victims.

Who are the lawmakers?

Legislators and other elected officials have a major impact on the formulation of criminal laws and criminal justice policy. The criminal justice policy is also strongly influenced by the news media and by businesses and public-employee labor organizations, which have a major stake in criminal justice issues.

Why aren’t men with guns who have drug evidence on them and who have criminal records and who are currently in violation of probation kept away from the general public? Why are we reading this over and over in the newspapers and hearing it over and over on TV newscasts?

We need good convictions and long sentences.

One of the main problems with our current system is that in every trial we have a dedicated prosecution team and a dedicated defense team and their goals are to win the case. Who in this process is dedicated to the truth?

We need leaders who are not driven by personal ambition.

There is a lack of transparency. There is a lack of community involvement. There is a lack of oversight. The judges seem to do pretty much as they please.

Let’s get specific. Let’s point fingers.

One insight that I took away from this little journey is that a positive change will not come from within the system.

Who is responsible for fixing our broken criminal justice system? We private citizens are.

How well do you know U.S. laws? Here's a simple test, and I admit that I didn't score too well:

Here's a link to my first article on the subject of what I consider to be our broken justice system:

July 5, 2011 -- Casey Anthony found Not Guilty. I have no words.

Go here to read Donna's hub about the tragic story of Nevaeh Gallegos:

October 2012: My heart goes out to the family and friends of little Jessica Ridgeway. May her murderer find justice cold and swift like a sword across his neck.

I do not want our taxpayer dollars feeding and clothing this monster for 10 or 12 years and then hear that he has been set free to do it again.

Rest in peace, little innocent girl.

This just in the news (August 28 2013):

Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced Stacey Rambold, age 54, to 30 days in jail for raping 14-year-old Cherice Moralez who later committed suicide.

Judge Baugh said that the victim was as much in control of the situation as her teacher, and referred to Cherice as “older than her chronological age” even though he had never met her.

"Something is not right with our system when a judge can make that kind of decision," Marian Bradley of the Montana National Organization for Women told the Billings Gazette.

Legally, a 14-year-old cannot drive, drink alcohol, buy cigarettes, or consent to sex. Yet the judge made this bizarre decision, saying that Cherice, the 14-year-old student, had as much control over the situation as the 54-year-old teacher.

As I said, who oversees these judges? Apparently they have a lot of leeway in their judgments; otherwise, there would not be such disparity in sentencing.

Consider the Supreme Court. John Paul Stevens, recently retired, was a justice for 35 years. Clarence Thomas could be a Supreme Court justice for 40 years. When the Constitution was written, no one could have anticipated how much life span would increase, nor how much power the unelected Supreme Court would accrue. The Constitution should be amended to impose a term limit on the Supreme Court, so that becoming a Supreme Court justice is no longer a lifetime appointment to royalty.

The entire justice system needs a complete overhaul.

Example: Mahamu Kanneh, child rapist -- beat the system in Maryland, even though there are witnesses and DNA evidence . Read on for an example of the justice dished out by a District Court judge.

Maryland District Court Judge Katherine D. Savage dropped rape charges because over a three-year period the Circuit Court clerk couldn’t find an interpreter for the rapist, a Liberian immigrant who speaks Vai, a tribal language spoken in West Africa.

Mahamu Kanneh was arrested in August 2004 after witnesses told police that he raped and repeatedly sexually molested a 7-year-old girl, a relative. The prosecution had witnesses and DNA.

Couldn’t Kanneh learn fluent English over that three-year period of time? And tell his story in court in English?

Couldn’t the clerk go to the judge at some point in time over a three-year period and say, Judge? I’m having a problem finding a Vai interpreter; what should I do? Couldn't the judge stand up and thunder a common sense admonishment to correct this travesty? Such as, Well, get the defendant an English tutor if you can't find a Vai interpreter!

That was all irrelevant anyway! According to various news articles, Kanneh could in fact speak adequate English. He graduated from high school here and attended community college.

In the same apartment as Kanneh and the 7-year-old girl also lived another sex offender, Sehkou Massaquoi, on probation, and Kanneh’s mother, also on probation on two counts of child abuse. I was under the impression that a sex offender who is on probation must stay a certain distance away from children. Yet here is one living in the same dwelling. And here is Kanneh's mother, a child abuser, on probation, living in the same dwelling. Where is Child Protective Services in this case?

I phoned and emailed various CPS officials and news media trying to find out what happened to the children in the Mahamu Kanneh case and not one has returned my calls or answered my emails!

My heart goes out to this little child, a victim of multiple rapists and a rapist's mother; living in the US and depending on the courts for justice and getting thrown to the wolves. I can't imagine how the little girl felt when she saw her rapist triumphantly walk back in the door a free man, thanks to our justice system. As far as I can determine, he only spent one night in jail and was then released on a $10,000 bond.

An ironic side note about other activities of Judge Savage:

"Preparing for Success, a program for teenage girls sponsored by the Montgomery County Women's Bar Foundation and other groups, is the brainchild of county Circuit Judge Katherine D. Savage, who devised the concept with the help of the bar foundation.

The day-long event provided practical information on such topics as being safe, balancing a checkbook, avoiding credit card debt, getting into college and paying for it, writing a résumé and interviewing for a job.

"A number of us thought it would be great to do more for girls, give them some practical tips," Savage said. "The purpose of the whole program is to give them something practical. We shy away from makeup, clothes." Such concern for little girls, Judge. How ironic.

(I just received confirmation today, January 11, 2011, that Katherine Savage is still a judge in Maryland although there were calls for disbarrment, and that, although an appeal was filed in this case in 2007, apparently it did not prevail. I tried to ascertain the whereabouts of the little girl but so far have been unable to do so. However, the more digging I do, the more horrific facts I learn. I just read that Mahamu Kanneh was also accused of raping a 1-year-old child in addition to raping the 7-year-old child. Are these child rapists still free?


Our system does not always protect our citizens from criminals for whom violence and intimidation is a way of life, and we sometimes lock up people who are non-violent and do not belong in jail.

We sometimes lock up people who are innocent (Anthony Graves). Click on the link below for his incredible story.


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    • Silva Hayes profile imageAUTHOR

      Silva Hayes 

      6 years ago from Spicewood, Texas

      Thank you for your visit and comment, A nony mouse. I believe you are correct.

    • profile image

      A nony mouse 

      6 years ago

      Katherine Savage is a particularly stupid judge - obviously there as part of an affirmative action plan, rather than competence in the law and common-sense

    • Silva Hayes profile imageAUTHOR

      Silva Hayes 

      7 years ago from Spicewood, Texas

      In my comment above, I spoke of simple greed and cynical selfishness. The "Cash for Kids" scandal illustrates my point. Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan should rot in prison. There is not enough oversight of our judges! Is this ever going to be addressed? Under the current system, the judges do whatever they please.

    • Silva Hayes profile imageAUTHOR

      Silva Hayes 

      7 years ago from Spicewood, Texas

      I'm sure there is a reason for the lack of the criminal justice system following through with prosecution of clearly dangerous individuals, and in my opinion, it is simple greed and cynical selfishness. The majority of the ticks that are fastened onto the taxpayers don't care about the victims; it's as simple as that. I don't really think there is an organized conspiracy. You are entitled to your opinions, but in my view, at this point in time, extremes are the answer because nothing else is working to protect the victimized and the innocent.

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      7 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      One might think that there is a reason for the lack of the criminal justice system following through with prosecution of clearly dangerous individuals.Could there be a conspiracy to allow such lax in the system in order to get the populace so mad that they will demand more from the criminal justice system. This is very suspicious behavior on their part to say the least.

      Remember tht old saying "Be careful what you ask for,you may just get it.The problem is they may be srtting up the population into accepting a system that would be similar to something like the S.S. in Nazi Germany in my opinion.Extremes are not the answer!


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