real justice
homewhat's it like elsewhere?behind the scenesstats & factsdiscussion

A Clear Mirror on our Society by Michael Johnson

Johnson has been district attorney [County Attorney] for Merrimack County, N.H., since 1983. He has sat on the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Council, served as chair of the National Criminal Justice Standards Committee, and represented the Section on the House of Delegates for the ABA. He has also sat on the Board of Directors for the National District Attorney's Association. He served as legal specialist to the Office of the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia during the summer of 1997 and has since served as chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Criminal Justice Resource Center, an American non-profit which negotiates material support for courts engaged prosecuting war crimes and genocide in Europe and Africa.
Most Americans never see the underside of the criminal justice system. In truth, most Americans never see the real version of the criminal justice process as it functions anywhere in the world. Our universal vision of justice is inspired by filmmakers, not journalists, and for that we suffer great ignorance about one of the most important institutions in civilization. The journalists at FRONTLINE have provided a glimpse into the reality of our American justice system that few viewers will have seen before. For that we should be grateful and attentive.

If we pay close attention to the subject of the FRONTLINE cameras, we will see the consequences of the growing reliance of modern society on the criminal justice system to solve many of our most basic problems. If we use our critical minds, we will notice that the resources we have allocated to such an important task are woefully inadequate both in quantity and quality. If we the viewers are honest, we will have to admit that there must be a better way to resolve most of our society's conflicts. And if we, the audience, are to be enlightened by the program, we must accept that we ourselves play the critical role in the development and maintenance of the alternatives to the flawed and inadequate criminal justice system. That system is seen here in Boston, but a close variation exists in almost every jurisdiction in America. This is not entertainment; it is rather basic insight into our collective soul.

We should also compliment the Suffolk County District Attorney, Ralph Martin and the criminal justice professionals of Boston to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for having the courage to bring the cameras into their professional bedrooms. It is from their world that we see ourselves as a society. What we see are overworked and deeply challenged legal professionals trying to cope with all the failures in Boston society. These men and women are not social workers, psychologists, priests, rabies, or personal friends to the multitude of people who rely upon them to "fix" the problems of their lives and sometimes the lives of their families, neighborhood, city. Yet we see these professionals trying to explain justice and its limitations to people who have suffered losses from the extremely traumatic to the tediously trivial. We watch as they attempt to describe the American Dream of justice and equality in a legal language that is inadequate to express true emotion and passion. And we must applaud them, because if they weren't doing it no other institution would. For that is the reality of modern justice in America. The American criminal justice system has inherited the obligations of numerous failed institutions as they cease to respond to the needs of our citizens: the mental health system, the educational system, the medical and substance abuse system, the vertically mobile economic system.

Each time society's failures are transferred to the justice system; it will be up to an overworked and over whelmed prosecutor, judge public defender etc. to resolve the conflict. It will be they who must find a solution to the poverty, ignorance, anger, mental illness, greed, or general frustration that led to violence or outrage. These professionals are good at the rules of evidence; the procedures of courtrooms and appellate chambers; the legal precedence of decades of judicial opinion. It is the art of "fixing" human beings that they aren't skilled in. Yet that is exactly what they are expected to do. And we watched their struggle, and hopefully learned something about why our society is as it its.

home | what's it like elsewhere? | viktor theiss | lisa medeiros | behind the scenes
stats & facts | discussion | video excerpt | synopsis | credits
press reaction | tapes & transcripts | FRONTLINE | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation