On Wednesday August 12, Minnesota’s Supreme Court approved a pilot program to commence in November allowing cameras in criminal court rooms but only in sentencing hearings. The new rule changes the precondition that all parties consent. Much of the work of our criminal justice system occurs long before a trial or plea bargain. Cameras are needed inside courts to bring about necessary changes in the criminal justice system.
The recent police shootings of unarmed minorities sparked the call by many for police to wear body cameras to show how events unfold. Body cameras only speak to one part of the equation. The other part is what happens inside courtrooms across America.
As a former prosecutor and now trial lawyer, I see the need for allowing cameras in all court rooms. Most court room proceedings are open to the public. Those proceedings that are already open to the public present no harm in allowing further transparency with cameras.
The use of cameras inside courts varies from state to state. In Maryland where I prosecuted, camera coverage is prohibited in criminal cases. Those opponents in Minnesota and elsewhere against cameras inside the courtroom argue cameras only benefit the media but work against justice and due process. I beg to differ.
In criminal cases from bail hearings, arraignment, motions hearings, trials and post- trial proceedings, the criminal justice system grinds daily. What happens inside court rooms will surprise most people. Real court does not remotely resemble TV dramas. And most high profile trials that are broadcast give only a glimpse of how the system works. The most important aspects of the criminal justice system are the day to day inner workings of courts.
A bail hearing is the first step in the process for someone charged with a crime to determine an amount of bail or release without bail. Factors depend on the seriousness of the crime, an individual’s ties to the community and whether he or she presents a flight risk. The amount of bail set is usually an arbitrary amount and varies from judge to judge or county to county for similar crimes and individual criminal history. In Baltimore following the Freddie Gray unrest, a judge set a $500,000 bail for Allen Bullock, the African America teen who turned himself following alleged destruction of a police vehicle whose photo went viral. Meanwhile, the six Baltimore police officers charged with the death or assault of Freddie Gray received bails ranging from $250,000 to $350,000. And former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing received a $1 million bail for the shooting death of Samuel Dubose. I’ve seen a defendant with no previous criminal record receive a bail set at $100,000 for sending harassing texts and emails. A closer look at our bail system is warranted.
Many persons who cannot pay bail regardless of their crime remain in jail until trial. In misdemeanor cases, that sometimes means a person might spend as much time in jail awaiting trial as the maximum sentence allowed for the crime for which they are charged. In other cases, many innocent persons unable to make bail will agree to plea bargains just to receive their get out of jail free card. Trials for individuals who do not want a plea bargain are a rare occurrence. More than 90% of all criminal cases result in a plea bargain.
The most striking aspect of cameras inside court rooms, particularly those in urban cities, will show the disparate amount of African Americans in the criminal justice system facing misdemeanors. Court rooms of mostly African Americans often fill up with standing room only. In most states, misdemeanor dockets make up the vast majority of cases. Yet, felonies receive all the media attention.
The interaction between lawyers and their clients varies. Many lawyers are very well prepared. However, many overworked public defenders and some private counsel meet their clients for the first time inside the court room on the day of the case. And I see lawyers who do not know the facts or legal aspects of a client’s case. And a lawyer’s preparation often determines the outcome of a case.
I doubt if cameras will change the way that lawyers, judges or defendants act. The change will come from how concerned citizens respond. Seeing the harsh realities of real court room drama will compel change. As many activists lobby for body cameras on police, they should also argue that cameras be allowed inside criminal courts. Change will not occur in the criminal justice system until we know the facts that necessitate the change.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.