Wednesday, February 23, 2011

'Logged and Ordered': TV court dramas and public perceptions of the justice system

If you've ever wondered why the public has a skewed view of the criminal justice system and a flawed perception that criminals have "too many rights," look no further than the portrayal of the court system in the popular media. The reality is modern criminal courts have devolved into little more than plea mills, but presentations of the process in the popular media pretend that Atticus-Finch style courtroom drama is the norm instead of the rare exception. From the perspective of dramatic presentation, I understand completely. But an unintended consequence of over-reliance on that dramatic trope is to misinform the public on how the system really works.

This outstanding post from Overthinking It catalogs outcomes of cases for the first ten years of the famous Law & Order TV series, giving us this awesome chart:

So in its first ten years, the proportion of plea bargains as a percentage of L&O cases maxed out at 58.3% in the 10th year, up from a minuscule 9.1% in the show's inaugural season. By contrast, in Texas felony district courts, "Less than two percent of all criminal cases (excluding transfers and motions to revoke probation) went to trial in 2010," according to the Office of Court Administration's 2010 Annual Report on the Judiciary (pdf, p. 38-39), and "97.8 percent of convictions resulted from a guilty or nolo contendre plea."

Of course, Law & Order is overtly fictional, though we're frequently told their stories are "ripped from the headlines." Still, to the extent the public derives their understanding of the criminal justice system from such shows, clearly they're getting an especially rosy and unrealistic view.


Prison Doc said...

God I would hate to go into the courtroom without a plea deal in'd have to sedate and/or restrain me otherwise. Can't say that I "trust the system".

Gil said...

The only reason a criminal would take his chances with a trial is because his lawyer thinks enough evidence is circumstantial to make the jury return with a "not guilty" decision.

Anonymous said...

Even in the municipal traffic courts I have juried in, the majority of the jury seems ready to punish the defendant to the max....and more. I usually start of asking folks in the jury room WHY they seem so mad at the defendant. I't my opinion that just having to go to court at ALL is plenty of punishment for rolling through a stop sign or being 10 miles an hour over the speed limit, but when we start deliberating nobody agrees.