The “Heavy” Reality of Our Justice System

With much fanfare, this past week marked the exact period in time when Marty McFly flies into the future from 1985. The second installment of the Back to the Future series transports the main character to October 21, 2015, where the audience gets to see a future version of American society from a 1980s perspective.

Of course, today, the “future” presented in the series is now set in our real-life past. With the passing of Back to the Future Day celebrations, it is actually beneficial to reflect on a few points presented in the film highlighting American society’s view of the criminal system and the role of the state in curbing crime and keeping American communities safe.

Two instances in the film are of particular interest and refer to a 1980s view of crime and criminal justice. The 1980s era of the “Just Say No” campaign and anxiety related to the cocaine-use explosion, generated the “tough on crime” sentencing policies which escalated the use of mandatory minimums as a way to solve the rise in crime.


The first instance to note refers to a scene in the film where “Doc” Emmitt Brown mentions the elimination of all lawyers by 2015, thus swiftening the judicial process. What results are hefty sentences in a matter of hours. While the purpose of this quip was for sheer entertainment, the result is in effect similar to mandatory minimum sentences. With no representation, endangering procedural due process, the elimination of representation leaves defendants in a vulnerable position and effectively incapable of obtaining a viable defense. Similarly, the strict liability approach through mandatory minimum sentences abolishes argument for criminal intent altogether, leaving a defendant vulnerable to a pre-determined sentence regardless of actual intent.


A later scene depicts an alternate 1985 reality where the villain, Biff Tannen, uses his wealth to expand his business and influence state and local government. Consequently, he takes part in gambling legalization. This translates to corruption, greed, and crime. The central town known as Hill Valley becomes a dilapidated community, fueled by greed emanating from Biff’s casino. From a 1980s perspective, this reinforced the concept that absent government influence and a hardened approach to crime via mandatory minimum sentences and construction of more prisons, a pristine, romanticized 1950s environment could not be achieved.

In sum, what is fascinating about the Back to the Future series is its time-capsule-like reminder of an era fixed on eliminating crime by force. The mindset and attempts from that era have yet to bring about an ultimate solution to crime. On the contrary, prison population numbers continue to rise and recidivism is at an all-time high.

Moving forward bipartisan efforts behind bills such as the Smarter Sentencing Act and REDEEM Act provide more realistic approaches to crime reduction. We don’t need to go into the future to seek answers for justice reform, we merely need to go into the past to recognize how inefficient our system has been at resolving criminal justice issues.