When discussing the recent terror attack in New York, Donald Trump said, “we need quick justice and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now because what we have right now is a joke and it's a laughing stock." As usual, Trump failed to provide any basis for his statement. What is the joke? Why is it a laughing stock? The criminal laws? The defense lawyers? The prosecutors and judges? The sentences? In fact, the answer is: nothing about the federal criminal justice system is funny. In fact, when representing clients who have been charged with federal crimes, as I do, there’s very little laughing and not many jokes. It is hard, therefore, to overstate how absurd Trump’s comments are.
If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself charged with a federal crime, you are in dangerous territory. Your life as you know may be changed forever. A federal case will consume you. Your money, your time and most of your waking moments are spent dealing with the charges against you. Your family, your friends, and your children are brought along for this turbulent ride. They suffer with you. Your job, your career and your future are on hold. Or worse, over. Laughing yet?
A federal criminal defense practice involves all types of clients who may be charged with a variety of federal crimes. But one thing remains constant: the federal criminal justice system enables the legal process to work, and work efficiently.
Trump wants “quick justice”? Then he should sit in a federal courtroom, in any federal district, on any single day. What he would see are federal judges doing all they can do to resolve cases as fairly and quickly as possible. Defendants charged with federal crimes are sentenced every day in courts all across the country. The amount of time and effort that goes into sentencing defendants in federal court is staggering. It is a lengthy and involved process where judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, probation officers, social workers, doctors, experts, and the defendants’ family and friends, all play an active and critical role. The goal: for a Judge to impose a sentence that is sufficient but not greater than necessary.
Trump wants “strong justice”? He should sit through a sentencing hearing or leaf through a copy of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. What Trump would learn is that the federal criminal justice system enables all sides to make passionate arguments to the Judge, who will then render a sentence after considering all aspects of the case. Oftentimes, sentences imposed by judges are harsh and substantial. Also, the federal criminal justice system has no parole. Defendants will serve the majority of their time.
To understand how far from a joke, the federal criminal justice system is, remember this: a conviction often destroys a defendant’s life. A sentence may involve years in prison. Even non-jail sentences like probation or house arrest can severely impede a defendant’s ability to lead a normal day to day life. A federal conviction may make it difficult for a defendant to get a job or have a normal future. No matter what the federal sentence, defendants’ lives are uprooted, their relationship with their families and friends are damaged, and their lives are negatively changed forever.
The judges and prosecutors who make up the federal system are no barrel of laughs either. They are serious and over-achieving people, usually with very impressive credentials, who set out to follow the law and make sure justice is served. Criminal defense attorneys must fight for everything they achieve for their clients because the federal criminal justice system hands them nothing. There are no shortcuts, and no handouts.
Viewing Trump’s comments in the face of this brief overview of the federal criminal justice system, it is easy to see how absurd they are.Here’s the point. Trump is trying to convince us that the defendant charged in the New York attack should be tried by a military tribunal in Guantánamo Bay. But, in doing so, he woefully fails to understand our federal criminal justice system. Simply, the federal criminal justice system can handle any case thrown its way. In the end, one thing that makes America great is that even when faced with a defendant accused of a heinous terror attack in New York City, our federal criminal justice system is equipped to afford defendants their constitutional rights to counsel and fair trial, and to ultimately deliver whatever justice is required, firmly and quickly.
And that’s no joke.