The criminal justice system is broken – that’s no secret. The way it chews people up, perpetuates injustice and targets minorities and poor communities is well documented. However, the issue of democracy in relation to criminal justice has lesser known problems in Ohio.
Democracy and criminal justice have a seemingly symbiotic relationship in Ohio’s county system, but there are severe flaws in how judges are appointed.
Season three of Serial spent a year documenting the justice system in Cleveland. How it works, how it doesn’t, and the impact it has. The typical issues were there — corrupt cops, unjust sentencing, the usual stuff. But something stuck out: The case of Judge Daniel Gaul, a common pleas court judge in Cuyahoga county.
Gaul spends his time in the courtroom berating defendants, making off-hand racist remarks, and handing down oddly unconstitutional conditions for those he places on probation. For example, he orders a number of defendants not to have another child out of wedlock as a condition of their probation or they’ll be sent to prison. Gaul is a prime example of why democracy has no place in judiciary appointments on the local level.
Unfortunately, a figure like Gaul is not unique in the courts. He actually speaks to the widespread issue of the disconnect between the public and the courts. The citizens electing judges will, typically, never have any interaction with them or be affected by their actions. When representatives are elected, their decisions affect their constituents in a very direct way, but the vast majority of those who elect judges will never have to appear in court facing a felony conviction.
It's hard to be informed about a judge's actions and philosophy, but what’s most alarming is the majority of voters aren’t inclined to care. Gaul garnered his support in the last reelection by being endorsed by the police union in Cleveland. It goes without saying that much of the general public and police are not aligned on issues regarding criminal justice.
Many of those who appear in front of a judge in a felony court have been red-taped from democracy in some way, and there is no driving force for the population at large to vote a bad judge out of office. Many of those appearing in these courts are poor minorities who don’t have the luxury of being engaged and informed when it comes to local elections.
If democracy isn’t present in our courts at the highest levels, why is is the deciding factor in county court systems? Citizens of the United States aren’t trusted with the power of deciding who will determine the constitutionality of our laws, but are trusted with electing those who have the power to use those laws as harshly as they please.
Democracy may be the backbone of our nation, but it doesn’t always make the most sense. The influence of these courts do not reach large numbers of the population and those who are truly being impacted by judge’s actions are not being properly represented.
Noah Wright is an undecided sophomore studying at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Noah? Tweet him @NoahCampaign.