5 Things “Law and Order” Got Wrong About Criminal Justice

Television shows like Law and Order are a formula that has successfully entertained Americans for decades. Everyone loves a good crime story, and everyone wants to see the bad guy get what is coming to him or her in the end. While this makes for good television, it’s not necessarily the way it always works out in real life. Here are five examples of things that shows like “Law and Order” get wrong about law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

1. The Bad Guy Doesn’t Always Get Caught in the End


It seems like every Law and Order episode ends with the cops getting the bad guys and everything getting wrapped up with a ribbon and a bow. Life is rarely this simple or fulfilling. According to Martin Kaste at NPR, closure rates for most crimes are below 50%. Even if the perpetrator is caught, they may still go unpunished or underpunished. Frequently, lawyers have no choice but to pursue lesser charges because they know they can’t live up to the burden of proof required to get a conviction on the graver charge. This can really seem unfair to the victims, but sometimes it is the only way to make sure at least some sort of punishment is dished out. Other times, technicalities can allow guilty people to walk away free. Police must follow very stringent guidelines, and defense lawyers are very adept at picking this apart and finding a loophole to get their client an acquittal. Even if there is a conviction, it just triggers the appeals process. The system protects innocent people by making it difficult to put someone away, but it also inadvertently protects the guilty at times.

2. Everything Doesn’t Get Wrapped Up in an Hour

In television land, everything works out in a nice three-act play that runs at just about forty-two minutes. The reality is that the justice system often grinds on for years if not decades. While all American citizens are supposedly guaranteed the right to a speedy trial, in real life, the wheels of justice turn slow. Television truncates things to a time period that won’t exhaust your attention span, but real life is much more wearisome.

3. The Legal System is Riddled with Paperwork

Sure, it is glamorous when the good-looking detectives snap the handcuffs on the perps on television. Then, you flash forward two seconds and they are back at home or sitting at a bar recapping the events of the day over a cold adult beverage. Real life is nothing like this. Arrests and lawsuits mean mountains of paperwork that must be done sooner rather than later. The action parts of law enforcement are played up on television, but a whole lot of the job is behind a desk pushing papers.

4. Most Cases Never Go to Trial

It’s so sensational to watch trials unfold on television programs in all their dramatic glory, but in real life, trials are actually somewhat unusual in the justice system. Whether you are talking about civil litigation or criminal law, a huge percentage of cases will be settled or plead out in some manner before an actual trial takes place. The accused party in criminal cases will often plea down to a lesser charge to avoid the possibility of a much harsher punishment. In civil cases, settlements are common for big businesses to avoid the whims of a jury with sweeping punitive abilities. Trials are reserved for cases where there is no other reasonable resolution.

5. Trials are Really, Really Boring


“Law and Order” really makes criminal trials look exciting. The evidence is presented with a dramatic flourish. The jury is taken aback. The opening and closing statements are emotional speeches that bring everyone involved to tears. According to one Houston criminal defense attorney, real-life trials can be downright coma-inducing. They drag on for hours and hours, and often, juries are exposed to expert witnesses droning about minute details of things they will never understand to the point that even the most diligent jurors are scribbling on their pads and watching the clock. Television brings out the entertainment value of the justice system, but it isn’t all that fascinating in real life.

As you can see, there are several examples of how television shows like “Law and Order” take creative license when illustrating the justice system to the world. It’s not a bad thing. These television programs are meant to entertain, after all, and the real world can be a lot more boring, unfortunately. While these programs might keep you on the edge of your seat, they are lacking in gaining a realistic understanding of our nation’s system of real law and order.

Written by: Fred Williams


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