Ten Lessons Learned from My Professional Experience in the Criminal Justice System

Beyond The Classroom

2020-12-10 | Dr. Barbara Bailey , Founder, Collaborative Crime Solutions

A student once asked me if I felt my academic studies had prepared me for a criminal justice career. My initial response was that I wished my professors had provided more assignments that required me to interact with people working in the system, whether interviewing officers, sitting in on a court hearing, or touring a prison. From my perspective, there was one significant factor missing.

But upon deeper reflection, I discovered ten things I wish I had known before starting my career in the criminal justice system.  I spent approximately ten years working as a Deputy Sheriff; before that I worked in loss prevention and private investigation for an insurance company. When I first started college, I was in the nursing program, but I took a Criminal Law class as an elective and was hooked.

Many questions were spinning through my head, such as what factors impact the law-making process? What is the real impact of these laws on society? On occasion, I did have those “inspiring” professors who spoke from the heart and brought in like-minded quest speakers. Before taking one class, in particular, I was pro capital punishment. I could only see one side of the puzzle and was missing the bigger picture. This professor helped me to see beyond the immediate. But college did not adequately prepare me for these ten things. 

  1. Culture Shock: Growing up in a white working middle-class family, I formed certain assumptions about society; for example, the laws were created to apply equally to all individuals. But the people I encountered in the system were very different than what I imagined. Most were poor, considered to be lower class, and labeled as minorities. I quickly found that the people making the rules and enforcing the laws were vastly different than those deemed to be breaking the rules.

     It is easy to separate yourself from others you see as different. For example, early on in my career, I was working in a courthouse. A little boy, about three years old, walked up to me, so I crouched down to greet him. His mother ran over, yanked his arm, pulled him away and very sternly told him, “Don’t talk to her. She is the law.” It made a lasting impression on me. A few years later, a 15-year-old boy killed another juvenile over a debt of less than $20 owed to his cousin. He was waived to the adult system. The boy stated it was all a matter of respect. It was the way the streets worked. An individual who disrespected another had to pay the price; otherwise, the disrespected one would be seen as weak. His mother and sister were present in the courtroom during the plea deal. They giggled and whispered to each other while he was being sentenced to life, ineligible for parole until he served 20 years. At the time, I could not fathom how his family could seem so detached from the severity of his plight. 

    Later I worked in the juvenile court. I went through a rough patch as a teen and could see myself in some of those in the courts for things like truancy. Never did I see a threat of formal court processing; my community handled things differently. It was informal and internal. 

    Was the school to prison pipeline real? Did juveniles who were truant need to be locked up? Where are the voices of those accused of crimes and the people who love them? Would it be helpful to allow impact statements from families of those accused? Probation officers try to do this with pre-sentence reports, but can we do better? Might putting a face to the case file help tailor sentences that are for the good of all? What is the bigger picture of how they live their lives and their impact on the lives of others? Understanding limited budgets, there are often students willing to volunteer time for experience. 

  2. System Overwhelm: The police have few alternatives other than to arrest. The court dockets are full, and we are overly punitive, with lawmakers failing to see the future ramifications of poor policymaking. More than two million people are held in prisons, jails, and other detention centers in the United States.

     From an economic standpoint, the costs are astronomical. But is there a greater cost when we factor in the human beings impacted by an overly punitive culture? At face value, one might think that “get-tough” laws are effective. Why would any rational person risk a lengthy sentence? We’ve got to go deeper. 

    Behavior is much more complex than this. Growing up, we are conditioned by others to hold certain beliefs and behave in certain ways. As a volunteer with Prisoner Visitation Services (PVS) for over 3 years, I have met with the same young man housed at the US’s highest-security federal prison. He is housed with offenders like the Unibomber and El Chapo. He has shared numerous times that to get ahead; you had to take what you wanted in his neighborhood. Although I do not believe he would ever admit it, he saw himself as a victim of society. If he had children, the cycle would likely continue. When you are working from such a belief system, how can decisions be seen as a rationale?

  3. Assembly Line Justice: System overwhelm leads to assembly line justice, merely a release valve to rapidly process cases. So, people quickly became case numbers to be shuttled through the system, and the human factor is lost. Greater than 90% of cases are disposed (closed out) via plea agreements.

     Imagine if everyone wanted to take their case to a jury of their peers. I would feel like I was “disposed” of as well if I were a defendant, pushed through the system and merely sentenced to incarceration. In 2015 I entered the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. I had no immune system, therefore visitations were limited, and everything was monitored, I mean everything. I felt isolated, afraid, and alone - lacking control.

    I was attached to an IV pole for over a month, like being handcuffed by a port in my chest. People were afraid for me, and in their fear, it was easier to detach. I’ve heard similar stories from those entering the prison system for the first time. They have the same worries, the stripping of human dignity, and family and friends falling away.

  4. Hierarchy: Naturally, I knew going into this profession that there was a hierarchy, as law and enforcement and corrections follow a paramilitary approach. Initially, I believed it was an effective measure for keeping everything in check. 

    But a breakdown occurs when subordinates’ voices gets lost, particularly when they have insight that their out-of-touch or overwhelmed superiors do not. Of course, an essential factor here is the quality of the leadership.

  5. Quid Pro Quo: I had never heard this term until I went to work in the system. I was very naïve about the political positioning that goes on behind the scenes. I quickly observed that if you knew the right people, you could move mountains to get a position you wanted, including having one created for you. The “old boys club” was very resistant to change unless it benefited them somehow.

     I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there were women in that club too. I also worked the General Assembly hearings for a few years, and it was not like what was presented in academia or the cable channel on which it aired. 

    I believed in a fair and equitable process that worked for the betterment of the constituents. But in my experience, backroom deals were commonplace. The House Speaker would often have to repeatedly bang his gavel to quiet down representatives having personal conversations. Others read mail, use the word “read” loosely.

  6. Victims’ Rights: When a crime is committed, the State becomes the victim. Although the actual human victim has a role in the process, the prosecutor does not represent them. The courts provide a victim advocate to help them through the process. This sounds logical, in that the prosecutor cannot cater to every victim. But the toll on the victims is heavy: constant continuances, feeling out of the loop, dispositions that they often do not understand (education is essential here). 

    We didn’t see any victim rights legislation passed until the 1980s, when we recognized that victims were being excluded from the process. Slowly we began allowing victim impact statements, whereby the victim and/or families could share with the court how the crime impacted them.

    One case made a lasting impact on me. A male defendant pleaded to the murder of three women and the assault of another. He stated that he chose these women because they were prostitutes, and he presumed that they would not be missed; he was wrong. During sentencing, the families of the deceased victims provided the court with live impact statements. One surviving victim was in custody for a charge unrelated to this case. I had to handcuff and shackle this woman (by policy), escort her to the courtroom, and stand next to her while she relived the horror she had endured before escaping with her life. After all the victim impact statements were given, the judge read his predetermined sentence.  

    It has been more than 15 years since I stood next to this woman sharing the impact of her victimhood, but I still can remember and feel the pain emanating from her body and words. I stood there questioning why we couldn’t do better for her, what was wrong with society, why do women feel the need to resort to prostitution and drug use to deal with pain? Where is the breakdown?

  7. Addiction: A lot of the cases I have worked in my career involved underlying addiction issues. In the case noted above, the surviving victim was in trouble with the law due to drug addiction. Treatment is not a magic bullet, despite what some in society may believe. All too often, it must be completed during one’s incarceration. 

    Eventually, the system adopted the drug court model, which was a step in the right direction, but there are limits on who can participate.  Drug court models adopt the approach that through treatment and incentives, they can rehabilitate the participants. Under the model, the drug court coordinator, treatment providers, defense, prosecution, and judge all work together to solve addiction, unlike traditional courts, which are adversary in nature.

  8. Remaining Under the System’s Thumb: Once a person is arrested and enters the system, it can be hard to get out of it. In some cases, individuals sit in jail for an extended period because they cannot afford bail. If convicted (whether by plea agreement or trial), fines and court fees can be financially crushing.

     At every turn, a defendant can expect to see a new monetary charge simply for being in the system, right down to DNA testing so they can be entered into a database to connect them to prior or future crimes. Even after they serve their time, the stigma follows them. 

    The system puts up more roadblocks, such as restricting convicted felons from voting, limiting where they can live, impeding opportunities for gainful employment or assistance, and preventing access to educational funding. Then society questions, “After we spent all this money on them, why haven’t they been rehabilitated?”

  9. Energy Drain: I went into the system believing I could make a difference. Instead, I found myself tired and drained of my energy at the end of the day. I had to shut down my feelings in order to cope. I met many good-hearted people who, like me, started their careers with the desire to make a positive impact, but became stressed and overwhelmed or apathetic and cynical. 

    These experiences drove me deeper into my personal healing routine, better food choices, exercise, and energy work. Training academies could benefit from including mindfulness training, stressing the importance of diet and exercise, avoiding compassion drain, and understanding that they must have some emotional boundaries to stay neutral and out of a place of judgment. 

    If we are not judging others, we have more opportunities to witness the positive in people. With inner balance, the outside factors are less impactful, but one can also have compassion for others. 

  10. The Media: The media has an agenda, and it’s not to give us the facts and allow us to draw logical conclusions. In my career, I have participated in events which I later saw covered on the news with a spin that left me scratching my head.

    Today the media is doing an outstanding job of dividing society, perpetuating the “us versus them” mentality. Defining who is “us” and who is “them” is subjective and constantly changes. Think back to 9/11 and how the media framed first responders. How are they portraying them today? Those carrying a badge are portrayed as predators, racists, and killers without remorse.

     If I were wearing a uniform today, I would be worried about my own and my family’s safety. Having family who currently wear a badge, I’ve seen them break down over how they are portrayed in the news and sadness over the loss of friendships who bought into the media agenda.  

What is the common thread woven into each of these ten components? Humanity. The human factor is missing from every single one of them.  If we (criminal justice professionals, students, and everyday citizens) desensitize ourselves to others (victims, defendants, and convicted individuals), it’s easy to blame them for circumstances in their lives.  Yet WE are the creator of the “consequences” they receive.  We are also the creators of how we run our police departments, our courts, corrections, and the policies we write. All citizens should serve a role, as our Constitution states, “We the people.” You can start today by refusing to blindly accept political agenda’s, applying critical analysis to everything you hear and read, and see beyond the immediate by asking what is the long term impact of this law, this policy? No one should be afraid to ask the hard questions, such as what can we do better? 

If I had a glimpse of these ten factors before entering the system, I would have still chosen this career. I am who I am today because of them. My experiences drove me to further my education, establish legitimacy and put me in a position to positively impact the system. As a teacher and facilitator, I have a unique opportunity to guide students who have a passion for improving public systems. As a consultant, I help public service professionals to maximize their leadership potential and create healthy and mutually supportive relationships to solve their community’s biggest challenges. 

Once our perspectives shift from judgment to equanimity, we will see how our policies and procedures impact all human beings—beginning the cycle of ushering in a new criminal justice paradigm based on real equality and fairness. 

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