Criminal Court Processes are Punishments Themselves

It is critical that Americans also acknowledge that powerful institutions inflict violence on people presumed innocent under the law every day. As it stands, the system is directly at odds with the idea that Americans are “innocent until proven guilty”, inflicting severe and traumatizing punishment long before a person sees a jury of their peers.

In Samuel Beckett’s play What Where, each character in the play is interrogated and given “the works” until he confesses. In the American criminal legal system, accused people regularly are given “the works”--coercion, threats, direct violence, humiliation, dehumanization—until they confess through a guilty plea, whether they are guilty or not. Every stage of the process—from police contact through booking, court appearances, trial, and sentencing—is a punishment. The system publicly humiliates accused people, separates them from their families, destroys their support networks, steals their property, deprives them of healthcare, lacks transparency, and totally disrupts their lives. 

In his book The Process is the Punishment, Malcom Feeley explains that the court process is hurried and deeply unpleasant. Many accused people face the courts without legal representation (though they’re constitutionally entitled to it), and almost none end up having a jury trial: they all plead guilty instead. Efficiency has been prioritized over all else in the court system, including justice or humanity. By making the criminal legal process so difficult to endure, people accused of crimes are coerced into pleading guilty just to bring their involvement with the courts to an end, no matter how disfavorable.

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