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Default is a choice

Justice is a system.  It is a constellation of related principles and structures forming a complex network.  It is supposed to result in a product which furthers our ideals.  The courtroom is the factory floor of the system. It is an amazing place.  Every morning you can experience the best of us…and the worst.

Like any other system that deals with volume, the courtroom constantly pits efficiency against quality. Keeping these goals at a reasonable equilibrium over time is difficult.  It is a mistake to pretend that there is some easy solution to consistently balancing them just sitting on a shelf waiting to be utilized. However, dispite the difficulty of achieving this balance, justice requires we take on this task.  Justice is premised on its own difficulty to achieve. Thus, we must strive to produce the best justice we can. This struggle gets built into the policies, procedures and culture you encounter on the other side of the bar.  

When one of these goals is significantly out of balance with the other, there are costs and consequences. An unintended and discrete symptom of efficiency trumping quality is when the system’s caretakers stop thinking. Volume creates reflexiveness. Experiencing what appears to be the same issue over and over easily leads to callousness. The increasing size of a court calendar increases the temptation to treat every case (and every person) the same. In turn, we create a “one size fits all” default process. 

  • “All cases must be resolved in 120 days.”
  • “We have rules, all we need to know is were they broken?”
  • “Everyone will go to jail for xx months if they…”

However, not all cases fit in “the 120 day box.”  As matter of experience, to properly handle most criminal cases, under the prevailing legal climate, 120 days is usually inadequate.  I would argue that most first time non-violent offenders are significantly harmed rather than helped by extended incarcerations. Most people outside our system are unaware that there is a cost to sending a person to jail. In Arizona it is around $200 day. Similarly, most people are unaware that the taxpayer (i.e. you) will end up paying the government in many of these cases. People who are not on the factory floor just don’t know costs of these decsions to: them. In turn, they are unaware of the consequences of efficiency significantly outweighing our other goals.

The above defaults are just easier. They do not require us to think. They do not require us to take on the emotional labor necessary to do our job – the best justice we can reasonably do.

These default responses also help us believe we are not accountable for the results of our default actions. Even on its best days the Justice System will not always get it right. Some days are better (or worse) than others. There is always the fear that someone’s decision results is news story criticizing their decision.  While this is a legitimate fear, it is not acceptable guidepost. These are the pros. Being guided and driven by fear is for amateurs.

Relying upon your default system is a choice.  Ask yourself: is it your choice?