Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hoping for Fairness and Justice

W hile the disaster in Haiti makes me feel powerless and small like everyone else, it is a powerlessness I recognize--powerlessness not from inability to halt the destructive force of nature, but because I sometimes fear that I cannot, or rather, that we cannot, stop the devastation of the poor by the powerful.

Having some familiarity with the treatment of the poor in a wealthy country, I wondered (with admittedly low expectations) what I would find in the Haitian Criminal Justice system. At United States Institute for Peace, a nonpartisan institute funded by Congress, a report by Vivienne O'Connor of USIP Dispatch from Port-au-Prince, Haiti (June 2009) provides an overview of the country's legal system and its sadly predictable problems:
"Persons awaiting trial in Haiti can languish in pretrial detention for years, forced to remain in prisons where conditions could be described as inhumane. There are numerous reports of mistreatment and torture committed by the police which go unaddressed.

"Certain criminal offenses also violate the rights of ordinary Haitians to freedom of speech. For example, it is a criminal offense for religious ministers to criticize the government in written materials or to exchange information with foreign powers on issues of religion.
"The right to freedom of association is also weak under Haitian law. Twenty people or more who gather to discuss religion, politics and other matters without the government’s permission could be prosecuted."

Or, from the International Crisis Group:
"The judiciary is encumbered by incompetence and corruption, partly due to inadequate pay, infrastructure and logistical support. The legal code is antiquated, barely modified since Napoleon bequeathed it to the one-time French colony, judges are not independent, case management is poor, and indigent defendants rarely have counsel.

"The state is able to guarantee neither the security of its citizens nor the rights of defendants. When arrests are made, the system is virtually incapable of conducting trials. Prisons become more crowded, and street crime escalates daily, while court procedures move at a snail’s pace. The results are prolonged pre-trial detention – some 96 per cent of the inmates of the National Penitentiary have not been tried – lack of due process and near total absence of public confidence in the criminal justice system."
I read the above and think, What the hell am I complaining about? We have courthouses, lawyers and trials, at least. But sometimes our system is more the veneer of a good system than an actual good system. Of course, having a lawyer is better than never seeing one at all. But a lawyer that serves as a stewardess (these are the charges you will be pleading guilty to today, Sir) instead of an advocate, isn't adequate justice, either.

Because even when we have the apparatus of a modern criminal judicial system, it is damned hard to fight the power of the police when they're out to get you or your client--like this tragedy where a Texas couple received life in prison based on false testimony that 255 grams of meth could get 45,000 people high. (Via Grits for Breakfast)

Because I love all optimists, and used to be more of one myself, I will end with the outlook of Ms. O'Connor (of USIP, above), as she sees the future of Haiti's Criminal justice reform:
"I see this same creative spirit [of the Haitian people] being applied to the criminal law reform process in which national actors -- with some help from international organizations, like USIP -- strive to achieve goals like fairness, equality and justice for all Haitians."

And once you're done with that, could you bring some of that Fairness and Justice For All over here to us?

No comments: