US Criminal Justice System: best in the World!

Speaking after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Bernie De la Rionda said “we have a great criminal justice system, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best in the world,” which was echoed by Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead counsel, who said, “He’s been acquitted by the most fair system in the universe”.

A lot of Americans probably believe that but it’s simply not true. By any objective standard, the US criminal justice system is one of the worst in the world. Don’t believe me? Look at the facts.

The US leads the world in prison population per capita, with 716 incarcerated per 100,000 of the population, accounting for 24% of the world’s prisoners. In fairness to Florida it only has 557 per 100,000 of the population, but that’s still significantly more than Russia or Iran. By way of contrast, England and Wales has 148 and Italy 108 prisoners per 100,000 population. No EU nation has anything like the same number of prisoners per capita as the USA or Florida. So unless you believe that the population of the US is more lawless than any other nation in the world, too many people are being locked up. Part of the reason is that 90% of convictions are the result of plea bargains.

The USA also leads the world in duration of prisoners’ sentences. For example, if George Zimmerman had have been convicted of second degree murder he would have been sentenced to 25 to life, and if he was convicted of the less included charge of manslaughter he was looking at 9.25 – 30 years, and a reasonable expectation that he would serve be serving over 25 years no matter what. Whereas if he was convicted of the comparable offence of involuntary manslaughter in England (there is no second degree murder), under current guidelines in cases of extreme provocation, the recommended sentence is 0-4 years. He could expect to receive a 3 year sentence, reduced to 2 years with remission, and eligible for early release after 18 months. In Italy, if convicted of the comparable offence omicidio preterintenzionale, despite technically having a tariff of 10 to 18 years, that is before relevant reductions for mitigating and extenuating circumstances. He could expect a sentence of just under 3 years but actually serve no time at all because prisoners with 3 years or less (4 years in the case of vulnerable prisoners) are automatically eligible to apply for non-custodial sentences, which will ordinarily be granted and certainly would in this case.

Furthermore, the US military, US Federal Government, and 32 US States, including Florida, still practice the death penalty. In fact, Florida is currently in joint second place with Oklahoma in the number of death sentences carried out this year and has more prisoners on death row than any other state. So what has capital punishment got to do with fairness?

Well nothing if all the people executed were guilty and received a fair trial but they don’t. The USA has carried out numerous wrongful executions. The only country in Europe that still practices the death penalty is Belarus, a pariah state, which is not allowed to be a member of the council of Europe, and is effectively made to sit on the naughty step by the rest of Europe. In fact, of the 40 nations out of 193 UN members states that still practice the death sentence, there are only two from the Americas: the USA and the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis, the rest are from Africa and Asia. And even amongst that bunch of the USA still comes fifth in the in the world in the number of death sentences carried out annually, behind such bastions of democracy as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

I would also question the fairness of the jury system as a lawyer who represent clients in jurisdiction that use the jury system and those that don’t, I certainly wouldn’t opt for trial by jury. In the Zimmerman case six unqualified jurors were left to their own devices to adjudicate a murder trial, to their credit they returned with the right verdict, but lets not forget it took them 16 hours and 20 mins to get there and at one point three of them wanted to convict of manslaughter. Also as Alan Dershowitz has pointed out the US is the only nation that elects prosecutors and judges, which is hardly conducive to the defendant’s right to receive a fair trial.

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9 thoughts on “US Criminal Justice System: best in the World!

  1. Zimmerman’s acquittal was correct in law, invoking the “stand your ground” law in Florida; it’s another reminder that you get ‘law’ and not ‘justice’ in the courts.

    You could mention the disparity between the rates of imprisonment between whites and African-Americans; and you could mention how many people are shot by the cops there for what often seems to be no reason. Or the toxic effects of plea-bargaining; or why the US has quite so many lawyers.

    I’m surprised that you wouldn’t elect to be tried by a jury; certainly in the UK there is a feeling that they would better understand you than a crusted judge. There are usually 12 in a jury here (I believe it’s 15 in Scotland); why were there only 6 in Zimmerman’s trial?

    • @ Korhomme

      Zimmerman’s acquittal was not only correct in law in the US it would have been correct in law in any EU state, including England. There was no injustice. Even if you believe that Trayvon Martin was on his way home and wasn’t about to commit a crime, which remains a matter of conjecture, he was certainly the architect of his own demise, when he attacked Zimmerman. Had he have survived, he would have been charged with aggravated assault.

      The disparity between the rates of incarceration blacks and whites is not evidence of an unfair system because black offenders also disproportionately convicted of serious violent and sexual crimes, and actually, I did mention that over 90% of convictions were via plea bargaining. If sentences weren’t so long and convictions not so readily obtained fewer defendants would accept a plea deal.

      I’m an Avvocato (Italian lawyer) and European lawyer. I have represented defendants in England in self-defence cases, I can assure you that most defendants in England don’t feel confident about jury verdicts. A verdict given by a judge or magistrate has to be supported by an explanation as to how the judgement was arrived at, which can be appealed if wrong in law. In Florida 12 jurors are only required for capital crimes i.e. murder in the first degree. In England, the twelve jurors is taken from the 12 disciples of Christ. Jury trials also needless lead to a lot of retrials were the jury is hung.

  2. Stefi I don’t know if your facts prove anything regards the quality of the US justice system. You do make a case that the state and national cultural differences play a role in matters both in the USA and the rest of the world.
    The US Court system is intrinsically tied to the US. Political structure and heritage. This is why some locales elect judges and others appoint. Jury trial clearly has its flaws specifically thinking the commoner can comprehend those matters brought up in a trial or to detach themselves from prejudices. That said ultimately it is a right that US citizens be found guilty or not guilty by ones peers NOT the State.

    • The USA locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation on Earth, and considerably more than any western democracy. If the USA has a much higher crime rate than other countries that might be understandable the problem is that it doesn’t. I’m not urging change, I simply pointing out that by any objective standard, the US CJS is not close to being one of the best in the World.

      I’m posting on the Zimmerman trial later today, but I thought it was worth addressing especially since Obama, in his role as chief executive, gave the jury a clear steer as to which way they should vote, and continues to undermine the jury verdict.

      • Stefi I look forward to your next post. As an American I get our system looks bad at times but at least it holds true to some very worthy core elements. I did read up some on the UK,no plea bargains?
        I’d be interested in your opinion as to whether the UK or the any country in the EU. Experiences a lack of prosecution in cases that are worthy of it? Thanks

      • The UK has three legal systems English law, Scotts law, and Northern Ireland law. In England, a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity earns an automatic third off the sentence. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) enter into plea deals of a sort with offences taken into consideration (TICs), which essentially means the defendant coughs to a whole lot of offences and they all run concurrently, for the offence which they can prove, but they also offer (or the police do) conditional cautions, which are not convictions but if they feel they have a realistic prospect for a conviction, and you don’t deny the offence or offer a possible defence, they can offer you a caution, if you pick up enough cautions they will charge you. They are usually offered for summary or either way offences (so not serious offences), although they can in rare circumstances offer them for offences like statutory rape. So winnable cases sometimes aren’t prosecuted in the public interest.

        However, if you mean are serious cases not prosecuted that could be won, in Italy, no never, they are not allowed to drop cases if there is the evidence to proceed. I always know in Italy why a case is dropped due to the inquisitorial system but in England, I never get an explanation so if a case is dropped before trial and I haven’t made representations, I have no idea. the fist time, I asked opposing counsel why he dropped the trial an he said “because I want to shag you”. Prosecutors in England are usually self-employed barristers at the Independent Bar, so their client is the Crown. Consequently, professional privilege applies so they’re just not allowed to divulge that information. It’s very odd because a barrister can quite literally prosecute one day and defend the next.

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