Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reason #158: Plea Bargains

Though I've talked about the American criminal justice system before, one thing I haven't brought up is plea bargains. Though we only tend to hear about the big, exciting jury trials, most people who are arrested end up pleading guilty and never getting a trial.

A lot of those people actually are guilty, I'm sure, but what's really going on here is that committing to a jury trial means committing to months or years of exhausting and stressful legal procedures, untold personal expense, and a fair chance that you're going to be convicted in the end anyway. And needless to say, if you're black or Muslim or covered in tattoos, the whims of an American jury are going to be an even scarier prospect than they would be otherwise.

So when prosecutors dangle a 30-year sentence over your head and say they can bring it down to five years if you plead guilty and save them a headache, what you end up with is a system in which 97% of federal convictions come out of guilty pleas.

This is all gruesome enough, but as it happens, a lot of defendants--Galin Frye and Anthony Cooper among them--either don't get competent advice regarding the plea deal in front of them, or are never told of the offer at all, and end up receiving lengthy jury convictions instead.

In the cases of Frye and Cooper, however, the Supreme Court ruled today that all defendants have the right to be fully and knowledgeably informed of any plea deals that may be available to them. That doesn't really change the broader issue here, but it's at least a sign of recognition from the Supremes that many American citizens are getting a raw deal.

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