How does the criminal justice system achieve equal justice for all?
It’s a loaded question with many answers that a panel of folks from Gallatin County’s criminal justice system tried to take on.
For Karolina Tierney, a Bozeman public defender, it means changing our perspective on people who are in the system, and investing in resources to help them get through the system.
“Not to look at them as criminals but to look at them as people,” Tierney said. “People have good in them.”
It also means making sure victims have input in the system, said Gallatin County Deputy Attorney Erin Murphy, and how victims also struggle when a person is charged, especially in domestic violence incidents.
And it means making sure people know and exercise their rights, like their rights to remain silent and to have an attorney, said private defense attorney Liz Montoya.
“It surprises me how many people don’t know their rights,” Montoya said.
Those ideas and more were shared as part of a panel at Montana State University for dozens of students in the Procrastinator Theater on Tuesday morning.
The panel also included Sgt. Jeremy Kopp with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, Tiffani Pimley, coordinator of the jail’s re-entry program, and Seth and Dennis, two men who spent time in jail and prison for drug crimes.
The panel stemmed from this year’s MSU convocation speaker Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights attorney and author of the best-selling book “Just Mercy” who spoke to thousands at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse this fall.
Gennifre Hartman, an instructor in the University Studies department, helped organize the panel for students to discuss issues facing our local criminal justice system.
“Stevenson said, ‘Proximity yields justice.’ He said we need to be willing to do uncomfortable things to change the narrative of race in America. This could be a great place for our students to start,” Hartman said.
Students prepared questions for the panel, ranging from asking the defense attorneys to share examples of cases where justice was not served, to asking the prosecutor about whether race or financial status play a role in choosing when to charge a defendant, to asking the law enforcement officer if he came into his career with any stereotypes that have changed since being on the job.
A common theme of the conversation was the need to help defendants break out of the criminal justice system, something that happens due to poverty, to chemical dependency, to mental health issues and, most commonly, a combination of all of the above.
“You get into this cycle and it’s really hard to get out of the system,” Tierney said.
“We get these people trapped in the system because we haven’t gotten them the treatment they need,” Murphy added.
“The system needs help,” Kopp said.
And those coming out of the system face obstacles, the biggest of which is finding housing, Pimley said.
Dennis, a former drug addict who spent more than six years in jails and prisons, urged the crowd to take ownership of their actions.
“Don’t get stuck in the system,” he said. “I think some of it befalls on us as citizens in the community to do what’s best for us.”
Seth, who also struggled with drug addiction and spent three years on probation after getting convicted of drug dealing, had mixed thoughts on his experience in the criminal justice system.
While he felt like he got what he deserved for his crimes, Seth said he has a hard time imagining a system with equal justice for all. Implicit and explicit racism plague the criminal justice system, he said, as does discrimination of the poor.
But “I hope we keep pushing. People like this are going to change it,” he said of the folks on the panel.
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