Defendants and Victims
Defendants and Victims: Their Roles and Rights FOCUSING QUESTIONS ■ What are the general characteristics of felony defendants in American criminal courts? ■ What are the rights of criminal defendants facing processing by the American justice system? From where do those rights emanate? ■ What role do victims play in the courtroom and in the justice process as a whole? What rights do crime victims have under current law? INTRODUCTION Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys together represent the core of the typical criminal court. They make up the now-familiar courtroom workgroup, a fairly tight-knit three-member club whose job is to dispense justice in a fair yet expeditious manner. Their visibility, influence, and control over the liberties of others have brought them considerable attention; they receive no shortage of coverage in news stories, academic studies, movies, and television.
Amidst all this attention, two other important figures in the court process sometimes take something of a backseat: the victim and the offender. An official government-run criminal process reminds people that crimes are offenses committed against the state and is intended to discourage people from taking justice into their own hands. But it would be wrong to suggest that crimes are only offenses committed against the state—real victims are affected by every criminal act. Their plight has been largely ignored over the years. They have enjoyed (suffered?) a secondary role, being mostly relegated to the sidelines to watch the process unfold before their eyes. Fortunately, several advances have been made in recent years to ensure that victims are no longer ignored. Then there are the offenders. If it was not for the criminal act followed by an arrest, the whole justice process would never be set in motion. In the last chapter, we introduced the defense attorney, whose job it is to represent the accused throughout the court process. In this chapter and the book’s next section, we look at the protections afforded to defendants during the court process. Some people view the criminal defendant as being “along for the ride” once the trial commences.
Their fate is most often put into the hands of a defense attorney who must convince a judge or jury that the accused did not commit the crime and who speaks for the defendant during the trial process. To say that defendants sit on the sidelines or take on an obscure role in the criminal process is not totally accurate. Some of them commit heinous crimes and thus receive no shortage of press coverage, and celebrities accused of crimes also garner plenty of publicity. But these are not typical offenders. Most criminal defendants are relatively unknown persons accused of committing garden-variety offenses, so their “dirty laundry” is not of interest to most people, and the crimes they commit rarely receive any press attention. The typical defendant is, in many respects, a “nobody.” DEFENDANTS AND THE COURTS Defendant Characteristics Who is the typical defendant? The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collects data on the characteristics of arrestees, but arrestees are not offenders per se, only suspects, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) collects data on felony defendants, but only those tried in the largest U.S. counties. More data are available on sentenced offenders, but we will look at such information in Chapter 15 when we consider the subjects of discrimination and differential treatment. See Table 10–1 for more information on defendants’ characteristics.
Lecture Note Review the statistics that this chapter presents on ethnicity and crime. Highlight the fact that blacks make up just over 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet they account for 43 percent of felony defendants in the nation’s most populated counties. Ask the class how they can account for this disparity. The overwhelming majority of crimes are committed by males. Males are arrested at rates much higher than females, and male defendants far outnumber female defendants. This is especially true of murder, rape, and weapons offenses, as can be seen in Table 10–1. There is much more equality across the sexes for the crimes of fraud and forgery. A problem with Table 10–1 is that it contains only index crimes and other traditional criminal offenses. We can learn much more by turning our attention to some other offenses not listed in the table. Two violent crimes committed more frequently by women than men (and not shown in Table 10–1) are child abuse and infanticide.1 Why? One answer is that women historically have had more child-care responsibilities than men. Discussion Question What are the characteristics of the typical criminal defendant? Do the data tell the truth about who criminals really are? Why or why not? TABLE 10–1 Characteristics of Felony Defendants in the 75 Largest U.S. Counties, 2004 Discussion Question Do criminal defendants enjoy sufficient rights?
Why or why not? In terms of race, there are more black than white defendants for all offenses. Offenses involving more white than black defendants include motor vehicle theft, and driving-related offenses; on the other hand, there are more black defendants than white defendants for crimes of violence. The data in Table 10–1 tell only part of the story. It is also important to consider the percentage of each race in the general population. According to U.S. Census figures,2 blacks made up just over 12 percent of the population in 2006, yet they accounted for 43 percent of felony defendants in the most populous counties (as shown in Table 10–1). In contrast, whites made up 31 percent of the defendants but made up approximately 75 percent of the population. We look at racial discrepancies such as these more closely in Chapter 15. Table 10–1 also looks at the age distribution of felony defendants. We are often given the impression that crime is committed almost exclusively by young minority males. While it is true that crime is largely a young person’s game, whether one group is represented more than the next depends on the offense in question.