I am a circuit judge in Miami-Dade County serving in the criminal division. Every day, I make decisions about whether to release defendants who are awaiting trial and whose families rely on them for basic needs; whether to grant requests by victims of domestic violence to remove stay-away orders that keep their families apart; and whether to sentence convicted defendants to prison, house arrest or probation.
Each decision is consequential, affecting an incalculable number of people, from the defendant and the victim to their families and the community. Do I release a defendant and gamble that he will not hurt someone while on pretrial release? Or do I, mindful she is innocent until proven guilty, leave her in custody and risk that a family goes hungry or loses its home or the children become wards of the state? Do I remove a stay-away order and later read about a tragedy in the paper perhaps caused by my removing the order? Or do I refuse to remove the stay-away order and contribute to the family’s further disintegration?
Is the thief I sentence to probation just beginning a life of crime that will culminate in violence which a prison sentence might have averted? Or will incarceration, rather than deter him from a life of crime, serve as a criminal finishing school for a young man who made an isolated mistake? Is the young mother charged with possession of narcotics an occasional drug user who only needed a wake-up call? Or is she an addict who needs to be separated from her children for their safety and so she can get clean?
My job is to judge based on the information presented by both sides, abiding by the laws the Florida Legislature has passed and the Constitution, with imperfect knowledge and an inability to predict the precise effect of each decision.
There are more than 200 judges in South Florida. Each of us, regardless of the nature of the cases we hear, makes decisions that affect countless lives every single day. We rarely learn which decisions proved more beneficial than harmful. When tragedy is averted, no one knows what did not come to pass. Defendants who reform and never commit another crime do not return to our courtrooms. Families exist that were not ripped apart because we correctly surmised that the defendant’s actions were an aberration and he was deemed worthy of a second chance. There are innocent people who are free, and guilty ones rightly incarcerated, because of our decisions.
There are potential victims who never became actual victims because a judge imposed a lengthy term of imprisonment. This does not make news, though it should.
However, when one of our thousands of decisions turns out badly, it makes headlines. The day a defendant leaves my courtroom and kills an innocent victim, I will feel the weight of the consequences of my decision and will endlessly question and dissect it to determine if, and how, I could have done better. With perfect hindsight, the media and the public will rightly demand to know why the defendant was free on the streets —because when something goes wrong, someone must be held accountable.
In the face of these expectations, knowing I will be judged by my failures rather than my unknown successes, I find myself increasingly relying on faith — faith that the other personnel in the justice system are performing competently and that I can rely on their recommendations; faith in my judgment and ability to evaluate situations without preconceived biases, judging each defendant and situation on their individual merits; faith in our ability as human beings to learn and grow from mistakes; faith in my ability to discern which defendants are capable of such growth and which are not worthy of my faith; and faith that more often than not my decisions turn out for the best.
Faith, without intermittent proof of success, is difficult to sustain. My faith is nourished when I learn of success stories, even if they did not arise from my courtroom. I recently met one such faith story — Angel Sanchez. I could recount his tale, but could not do it justice. See it for yourself at www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUODg4QXBcA. His is one of many.
Judge our courts, as you should, but know that despite the occasional horror story, there are many more successes that should sustain your faith in the human potential — even as you only learn about the failures.
Miguel de la O is a judge Miami-Dade County’s Circuit Court.