National Disgrace: Punishing Non-Plea Bargainers

kangaroo courtRadley Balko points out an interesting report in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on a national rise of out-of-control prosecutors dumping charges upon charges on defendents in order to overwhelm them into plea bargains:

Nationally, for fiscal year 2004, 95.5 percent of the 51,666 convictions were reached through guilty pleas. That means that only 2,316 U.S. District Court cases across the country went to trial.

In the Western District of Pennsylvania, the percentage was just a bit lower. Of the 261 convictions that year, 94.3 percent were reached through pleas.

Mr. Kramer, who now teaches at Penn State University, believes the American court system has been acclimated to processing guilty pleas.

“We’ve created a barrier to any potential increase in jury trials,” he said. “If all of a sudden we had a 20 percent increase, it would be tremendously burdensome on the court system to accommodate those.”

[…]

“It’s a perfectly laughable system,” he said. “The prosecutors love it. The message is any sane defendant, guilty or innocent, ought to do the prosecutor’s bidding.”

To supplement this article, I found an older PBS interview with Yale professor of law and legal history John Langbein who puts it succinctly:

What is wrong with the plea bargain system in our courts today?

Plea bargaining is a system that is best described as one of condemnation without adjudication. It is a system that replaces trial, which is what our constitution intended, with deals.

Second, those deals are coerced. The prosecutor is basically forcing people to waive their rights to jury trial by threatening them with ever greater sanctions if they refuse to plead and instead demand the right to jury trial.

18 Comments
  1. “for fiscal year 2004, 95.5 percent of the 51,666 convictions were reached through guilty pleas. That means that only 2,316 U.S. District Court cases across the country went to trial.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesnt it actually mean that only 2316 of the CONVICTIONS resulted from trials? Is there a 100% conviction rate? Either way, don’t mean to nitpick as its a great point, but I think the % of convictions of those who go through with the trial is also somewhat relevant.

  2. Actually, the percentage of convictions is quite high. Many prosecutors will not take bad cases to trial. Their offices usually keep statistics.
    Instead, they will try to pressure out a plea. If they don’t get a plea that way, they will lower charges or dismiss the case. At least that is my experience as a public defender.

    I would also add that one of the roots of this problem is habitual offender laws. At least in Louisiana, habitual offender laws are onerous. Many defendants, no matter what they did, if treated as a habitual offender, have a 20 year minimum–and a good portion have an automatic life sentence. The most essential part of a plea agreement is the promise not to enhance sentences under the habitual offender laws.

  3. G’day Stevo, I read the whole article at Radley’s. Tell me, what does it say about Prosecutors that this OBVIOUSLY “laughable system” is enthusiastically enforced? Like The Dept. Of War being called The Dept. Of Defense, The Dept Of Justice is really The Dept. Of Convictions. Oh so many of these Prosecutors profess to be God fearing, flag waving supporters of The Contstitution … and yet, they act like Kommissars out of an Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn novel. Why is there such a disconnect with actual, stone cold reality? The US Justice (sic) system emulates a Dickinsian/ Victorian farce. What is wrong with you people? Regards.

  4. I was arrested 3 years ago. I would not take a plea bargian because the charges were bogus and worthless. It is a good thing I refused to plea because once the case went before a judge, it was dismissed as bogus.

  5. G’day Paulie re Aussie Justice System. Well, like any State, the Justice system sucks, sometimes. However, even going on percentages (Australia 22 million Vs USA 296 million) we are still a very different system. Even ‘though we are like an American colony in someways, our legal system is still far more akin to the Brit system. If one can afford a solicitor (lawyer to yanks) things are good. The Public Defenders mostly suck…but we don’t seem to penalise repeat offenders like USA. There is No 3 strikes and you’re out law. I have been busted for pot, 20 odd years ago, and I laughed at the young cop, telling him I could afford the fine, the older cop just told him to get on with it. Yep, I was fined AUD$200. The fines are STILL the same level. This is probably about to change, the thrice cursed Fundementalists are now flexing political muscle and don’t approve of just about everything I consider fun:-) Fuck knows what Christi(n)anity (sic) has got to say to me! V for Vendetta, baby.

  6. Greg,

    Sounds like the US prior to the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era.

    And don’t let the fundies fool you, they’re no followers of Jesus. They want to rule in His place, which is the same thing which Lucifer (you know, the devil) got thrown out of heaven for.

    Jesus IS An Anarchist and can you see the Romans and the Sanhedrin giving Him a plea bargain deal before nailing Him to the cross?

    The Texaban Alcohol and Beverage Commission would certainly bust Him for contributing to public intoxication for turning water into wine, the IRS would be on Him for rendering unto Cesar Potus what is duly his, which is nothing; He would be chastized and jailed for preaching the Gospel outside the free speech zone.

    As for loving your enemies, He would be told that “if you’re not with us you’re with the terrorists” and whisked off to a secret prison as a suspected enemy combatant agent.

  7. And furthermore, for hanginging out with prostitutes (or getting lost and turning around in the car a time or two in an area they frequent) one can be charged with being a customer, even if there is no record or evidence of any transaction. I seem to recall about Jesus hanging out with Mary Magdalene, a known prostitute.

    For that matter, any woman walking down the street in some neighborhoods, dressed in what the cops think is a provocative manner, can be charged as a prostitute.

    Then there was the whole illegal immigration business, to avoid the Roman census in Israel. The more I think on it, the more sure it seems Jesus would be in the clink, the loony bin, or perhaps Guantanamo Bay.

    And these whackos say they are His followers? Methinks it’s that other fellow they’re secrtely bowing to, whether they know it or not. Could it be…oh I don’t know…satan?!

  8. PC- Mary Magdalene is known as a prositute but biblical scholars agree that she was not. She was painted in that light by the church.

  9. Jesus IS An Anarchist

    I’m no theologist, but translated into political terms, wouldn’t he actually be more of a dictator?

    Didn’t the bible say that Jesus (in the guise of God) actually instituted every government on earth, so we should obey them? And didn’t Jesus say that we should all pay taxes to those governments?

    And also, doesn’t the bible make the case that if you don’t do things HIS way and follow his rules, you’re essentially going to be subjected to horrific torture for all eternity?

    Doesn’t sound very anarchistic to me…

  10. Mary Magdalene is known as a prositute but biblical scholars agree that she was not. She was painted in that light by the church.

    Doesn’t matter. A woman in Oregon can be arrested as a prostitute for walking down the street with condoms in her purse. Even if she has kids and groceries with her. True story.

    I suppose that means a man can be arrested for walking with and talking to a woman who is bearing a concealed condom. Or stopping to admire her and engage her in conversation.

    I’m no theologist, but translated into political terms, wouldn’t he actually be more of a dictator?

    No. Read the link.

    Didn’t the bible say that Jesus (in the guise of God) actually instituted every government on earth, so we should obey them?

    No. Satan controls them, otherwise how could it be tempting to offer control?

    And didn’t Jesus say that we should all pay taxes to those governments?

    No. Render unto cesar what is his – nothing. Read the link.

  11. I suppose that means a man can be arrested for walking with and talking to a woman who is bearing a concealed condom. Or stopping to admire her and engage her in conversation.

    Wait, what was I thinking? That would fall under sexual harassment laws if she is NOT in possession of a condom (therefore not presumed to be a prostitute under state law).

  12. Didn’t the bible say that Jesus (in the guise of God) actually instituted every government on earth, so we should obey them?

    Every legitimate government, which is none of them.

  13. Romans 13:6-7
    6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.

    Romans 13:1-2
    1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
    2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

  14. You didn’t read the link, did you? Read the link.

    13:6-7 has to be read in context.

    13:1-2 precisely, there is no authority except which God has established. Thus the regimes of this world are something else.

    Again, read the link. Seriously.

  15. If you do not read the link, you will be condemned and convicted without a plea bargain!

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