Logan Dobson: Treat SJS offenders like criminals

This much is true: Student Judicial Services needs to change.

The organization in charge of doling out punishments for various behavioral infractions on campus has, for too long, treated students unfairly.

What is the single most important change that SJS could make? Start treating students like criminals. Before you misunderstand me, let me clarify: in many, many ways, people accused of crimes in formal courts of law are treated more fairly than students who go before SJS.

One of the places this is most evident is in SJS’s standards for guilt. In the real criminal justice system, there is something known as the “presumption of innocence.” That is, you are innocent until proven guilty. When you go into court, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not on the defense; the people who are doing the accusing have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you are guilty.

This is not, unfortunately, how SJS operates. In an SJS hearing, the judges are told to operate on a preponderance of evidence standard; that is, if 51 percent of the evidence seems to be against a student, that student is considered guilty.

This is an absurd standard for an organization that dispenses punishment. SJS needs to immediately adopt a system that places the burden of proof firmly on the prosecution.

SJS also needs to change its procedural rules. Did you know that we have an entire group of students who are devoted to helping you through your SJS process? Student Judicial Advisors are, in many ways, the defense attorneys of the SJS world – they can help you understand the rules of the hearing, the evidence against you and how to navigate the entire process.

But there is one major difference between an advisor and a defense attorney: In your SJS hearing, your advisor isn’t allowed to talk. Consider, if you will, what our criminal courts would look like if this were the case. Professional prosecutors facing off against the accused while the defense attorneys have to sit quietly. This is unacceptable. Student Judicial Advisors is a good program that must be expanded, and the advisors must be allowed to take a more active role in hearings.

Finally, SJS needs to change the people who do the judging. You might know that SJS actually uses student judges in its cases. But these students have to apply and be vetted by SJS before they can become judges. Take a step back and imagine the absurdity of this system. Imagine if the only people who served on juries were people who applied and were hand-chosen by the prosecutors. Could this possibly result in a fair trial? Unlikely.

If SJS wants to use student judges, it should institute some sort of jury duty system. If it can’t figure out a way to do that, it might be time to hire people within the SJS department to be unbiased judges, and make sure that it’s impossible to fire them based on their decisions.

In many ways, SJS is our own miniature version of the criminal justice system. Students who are accused of breaking the rules are supposedly brought to justice. But if SJS is committed to punishing like a court, the least it could do is give the accused the same rights as they would receive in court. GW students are not, by and large, bad people – so it’s a shame they’re being treated worse than criminals.

-The writer, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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