How to Learn About the Criminal Justice System in Three Easy Steps

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by Sara Mayeux

The paradox of the criminal justice system in America is that it touches millions of people -- 1 in 100 adults is behind bars, while 1 in 31 is under some form of supervision (whether prison, probation, parole, etc.) -- yet can be largely invisible to those whom it does not touch. Many of you will have personally or professionally encountered the system; but, for those of you who haven't, as my guest stint nears its end I thought I'd hijack the blog to offer three suggestions as to how you can learn more. I could offer a list of blogs to follow or books to read, but the best way to see how the criminal justice system works in your community is to do just that -- to see it! These are listed in order from most effort required to least:
(1) Visit your nearest state prison: Many prison systems offer some form of public tour, although you may have to organize this through an organization or school group. For example, here's the page about public tours in Tennessee; and in California, I've been on tours at San Quentin, which is representative in some senses (overcrowding, two men to a 48-square-foot cell block) though not in others (because it's in the Bay Area, it has a lot more volunteers and, hence, recreational and rehabilitation programs than the more rural California prisons). If you live close by to a large city or county jail, that would also be worth visiting if you can. Some prisons are more open in what they'll show visitors than others, so once you pick out a facility it may be worth checking around with people who've done a tour there before to confirm that it will be worth your time. You will, if nothing else, learn how the prison wants to present itself to the public, which can in itself be telling. Touring a prison takes the most advance planning of these three suggestions, since you may need to put together a group, you will have to go through some type of background check, and you will be at the mercy of the prison's schedule.

(2) Go on a police ride-along: Many police departments have some type of a citizen ride-along program where you can be assigned to go along with an officer on his shift; it's worth calling up your local police department to check. Not everyone will feel comfortable doing this, for various reasons, but if you don't know (m)any police officers personally, it can be a good way to 1) meet a police officer in your community and talk to him/her about his/her work; 2) get a sense for what a police officer's typical day is like (of course, the day you go may not wind up being typical, but most likely it will be); and 3) view your community the way that police officers view it, which can be eye-opening. I don't mean this last point existentially (you can't put yourself into the police officer's head) but in a far more literal, mundane sense: Your neighborhood will look different when you're riding around with no particular destination but eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary, than it does when you're driving your kids to school or retreading your daily route to work. I would suggest a nighttime shift if you have the option. 

(3) On your next day off from work, take a self-guided tour of your local criminal courthouse: This is the easiest, because you don't need any advance authorization, although you may need to show some form of ID and go through a metal detector. If you've only visited your local courthouse for jury duty or to pay a parking ticket, you are missing out on 99% of what goes on there. So, the next time you have a free day, head to the Hall of Justice or whatever it is called in your area for a few hours. Sit in on the arraignments calendar; stop by the Drug Court or Behavioral Health Court to see what's going on (if your jurisdiction has one); watch a plea colloquy or three. Under no circumstances go into a courtroom where a trial is going on, because less than 10% of criminal cases go to trial (even less depending on the jurisdiction). Trials can be interesting to watch, but on this day, your goal is to get a feel for the run-of-the-mill. 

A lot of what the government does is hidden from public view. But many aspects of the criminal justice system are open to those who care to look. I suppose it's possible that you could follow these three steps and not notice at least one thing going on that concerns you as a citizen, but I think that is unlikely. 

There is a lot of variation by jurisdiction even within states, so taking these three steps won't give you a full picture of the criminal justice system. And of course, you won't get an inmate's view of the prison by going on a public tour, you won't know what it's like to be a police officer after a couple of hours, and you won't see everything there is to see through one day's visit to the local courthouse. But you will see more than you had seen the day before.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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