Learning about Criminal Justice Reform with Emily Bazelon

By Diana Pope, Staff Writer

Criminal justice reform was a recurrent theme throughout this past election season. Yet even now, with the elections decided, Americans continue to debate the trustworthiness of our judicial system, especially when it comes to the death penalty. Emily Bazelon, a graduate of Yale Law School, came to Bryn Mawr College to offer her own insights on this controversial topic, along with scintillating observations about the methods of prosecution in the United States. Bazelon is currently a staff writer for New Yorker Magazine and a leading expert on the malignant effects of bullying. She received many positive reviews from the New York Times for her book about bullying, titled “Sticks and Stones.” In addition, Bazelon has written various articles for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones.

In this lecture, Emily Bazelon wanted to provide information about the current power of prosecutors in the judicial system. She provided countless facts that made audience members question the fairness of America’s court cases.  Bazelon argued that prosecutors “have more power than ordinary police on the streets,” and asserted that all incidents of mass incarceration can be traced to these important figures in courts of law.

Poor prosecution is hardly discussed as one of the symptoms behind the failures in America’s judicial system. Prosecutors are employed by the city, state, or federal government and decide whether or not to prosecute criminals based on evidence. Bazelon noted that most criminal cases are resolved by prosecutors without the process of a trial. Currently, 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved outside of the courtroom without guilty pleas.

Sadly, not all prosecutors follow ethical obligations, and some will imprison innocent individuals because they are short on time with a given case. Some prosecutors may receive as many as 50 cases in one week. Bazelon added that these individuals may have “tunnel vision” and may pull in evidence to quickly incriminate a person and move past a case. Prosecutors are prone to giving long sentences to innocent defendants without incurring any penalties to their professional career. In most cases, Bazelon stated that these individuals are “immune from suit in their professional capacity” and that state bar boards usually don’t find grievances against prosecutors.

In her work with journalism, Bazelon remarked that one of the most alarming trends that she’s noticed is the social inequality of criminal courts. From her research, over 90% of all prosecutors are white individuals. She’s interested in following the career of Kim Foxx, a prosecutor who grew up in Chicago. Foxx plans to initiate criminal justice reform in this city because it is known for mass incarceration of people of color.

Bazelon concluded this lecture by suggesting that judges should have more discretion with all court cases across the country, and prosecutors should have less supervision of final court decisions. She understands that judges make imperfect decisions, but feels they should be “mutual referees in all court cases.”

Bazelon’s talk forced audience members to think twice about the underpinnings of America’s judicial system. Her lecture shed light on a crippling issue in modern society that is frequently swept under the rug. Bazelon’s greatest hope is that prosecution will be fixed someday that the judicial system will function more effectively with fewer issues of social inequality.

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