Much has been written that deals with the phony “War on Drugs” and the negative effects it has on society, particularly those lacking resources, or who are people of color. This piece is not about the “War on Drugs”, but that ridiculous “war” has actually driven the abuses of our criminal justice system that is my topic today. A while ago Human Rights Watch produced a report about how most defendants in federal drug cases are forced to plead guilty under the threat of the imposition of a mandatory sentence. There was an article in Huffington Post referencing this study and it immediately brought to mind two aspects of law enforcement and prosecution today that raise my ire.
The first is the process of plea bargaining, which I believe makes a mockery of our Criminal Justice System. The second is the concept of mandatory minimum sentencing which in my opinion leads inevitably to miscarriages of what we would like to call justice. The idea of negotiation, bargaining if you will, is that each of the two sides has the ability to provide enough of value to be able to establish a mutually beneficial contract. Clearly though when it comes to a Prosecutor bargaining with a defendant there is, except in the case of the powerful, an unequal negotiation. The Prosecution has the authority and resources of the State backing it up. Most defendants and indeed most people in prisons, have little resources. In the public’s (thus jury’s) mind, most defendants are really guilty until proven innocent, despite the “presumption of innocence” that is supposedly a hallmark of our legal system. Adding immeasurably to the Prosecution’s resources are “Mandatory Minimum” sentences (MMS). They were instituted by legislators who wanted to appear “tough on crime” and so represent drastic solutions to punishment needs, in order to appear as “tough” as possible. With the trump card of MMS prosecutors are in a position to threaten a defendant to “cop a plea” to avoid a more draconian prison sentence. The Human Rights Watch study shows how these two procedures have become a feature of American Criminal Justice, that in my opinion makes a mockery of it.
“Only 3 percent of U.S. drug defendants in federal cases chose to go to trial instead of pleading guilty in 2012, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
The small number begins to make sense if you consider the consequences faced by drug defendants convicted in court, argues the report’s author, Jamie Fellner.
“Prosecutors can say, ‘Take these 10 years or, if you get a trial and are convicted, you’re going to look at life,’” said Fellner, an attorney who specializes in criminal justice issues at Human Rights Watch. “That’s a pretty amazing power that unfortunately they are more than willing to wield.”
The effect, she argues, is that prosecutors essentially “force” defendants to plead guilty.
Last year, drug defendants in federal cases who went to trial and lost were sentenced to more than three times as many years in prison as those who took a plea, according to the report’s analysis of data from the United States Sentencing Commission, a government agency.
And the majority of those who did go to trial — 89 percent of them — lost.” “Drug Defendants are Being Forced to Plead Guilty”
In my opinion the premise that underlies the concept of the “plea bargain” is a faulty one. The justifications used by prosecutors invariably center around the heavy burden of cases they must “clear” and the lack of court resources available. Plea Bargaining is seen as a way of making due with an inadequately funded and staffed judiciary system. It simply doesn’t make sense that a country that takes exceptional pride in its supposed Democracy and Justice System under funds one of the basic needs of a truly balanced justice system. Why do we have a court system that lacks the funds it needs to provide the right to a fair and speedy trial? How do we look askance at human rights violations in other countries, when in our own human rights are denied to those who would seek a fair and speedy trial, because the country refuses to apply the resources needed to provide a fully operational court system?
In order for the “plea bargain” to be an effective tool for prosecutions by the government there has to be something behind the prosecutors threat that will strike terror into the heart of even an innocent defendant, causing them agree to plead guilty to charges of which they might be innocent. In the ever increasing spate of “conspiracy” cases the prosecution also needs leverage to get one of the presumed “conspirators” to turn on their companions. Conspiracy prosecutions have been around for a long time and have historically been used by the government deal with groups the powers that be consider noxious. Most laws that have expanded the reach of criminal conspiracy prosecutions, such as the RICO Act , have been used by prosecutions to also attack political groups, corporate entities and even the Roman Catholic Church. Here is a website by attorneys who fight RICO act cases, which explains how the Act is used in ways its drafters never intended: RICOAct.com. Like many other laws that in my opinion demean our Constitution the RICO laws were first signed into law in 1970 with the express purpose of dealing with organized crime, specifically drug dealers. While conspiracy prosecutions have been around for a far longer time and were used in our history to attack “radical” political groups and the nascent Labor Movement, RICO became conspiracy on steroids. It would be helpful here to see the definition of conspiracy:
“An agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act, along with an intent to achieve the agreement’s goal. Most U.S. jurisdictions also require an overt act toward furthering the agreement. An overt act is a statutory requirement, not a constitutional one. See Whitfield v. United States, 453 U.S. 209 (2005). The illegal act is the conspiracy’s “target offense.” http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/conspiracy
Today, conspiracy prosecutions in many jurisdictions don’t even require that the “conspired act” is committed, only that there was a “conspiracy” to commit it and that a step was taken to actually further the plan. American history has shown that conspiracy prosecutions have turned on a group of people talking about committing a violent act and one of them purchasing something that could have advanced the plan. One of the most famous conspiracy prosecutions in our history ended with the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the “Cold War”. Where Ethel the wife was executed even though there was little evidence she was a party to the alleged conspiracy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_and_Ethel_Rosenberg
Back to my main point though, since conspiracy charges are only one of the “tools” used by prosecutors to obtain “plea bargains.” By far the most effective “club” wielded by prosecutors today is Mandatory Minimum Sentencing.
“The percentage of defendants in 2012 who fought their charges is likely an all-time low. In 1980, the first year for which the report reviewed the relevant data, the percentage of federal drug defendants who pleaded guilty was slightly more than 60 percent, and it has risen steadily since then.
The advent of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws in the mid-80s is largely responsible for the steady increase in guilty pleas, according to Fellner. Such laws required judges to impose harsh, predetermined sentences on people convicted of the distribution and, in some circumstances, possession of illicit drugs, while giving prosecutors the ability to offer defendants smaller sentences as part of a deal.
“If you can get someone to acknowledge guilt without the burden and expense of a trial, without having to marshal witnesses and line up witnesses, and without risking an acquittal, why not?” said Fellner. “You don’t have the cost of a trial, it doesn’t take the time and resources, and it increases the notches on your belt of how many convictions you’ve gotten.”
But in reality, the government lacks the resources needed to try everyone who is charged with a drug offense, said Steven Jansen, the vice president and chief operating officer of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a professional group based in Washington.
“Justice would almost stand still if we took the majority of our cases to trial,” he said.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/05/drug-defendants-plead-guilty_n_4387290.html
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. You can follow this link to see the list by country: http://www.prisonstudies.org/info/worldbrief/wpb_stats.php?area=all&category=wb_poprate
The evidence clearly shows that this is due to the failed “War on Drugs” and the burden of those laws fall most heavily on the poor and people of color. In my view this is a sorry state of affairs for a country that we used to take pride in as the bastion of freedom. This degradation of our Criminal Justice System has come about because of a confluence of factors that can be summed up as political fear mongering in search of expanded power. Part of that quest for power is that our prosecutorial positions are stepping stones towards higher office and thus open to abuse by those with higher aspirations. This is particularly true if one can get cases that show the prosecutor as being “tough on crime”, Finally too, as with most things in this country, it comes down to the profit to be made by the privatization of the prison system and the need to ensure that our prisons meet their bed count quota. However, underlying all of this and driving this system is in my opinion one major factor.
In our country we seem to want justice on the cheap. Historically, our court systems have been underfunded and understaffed. We as a nation pride ourselves on our justice, yet we consistently refuse to fund the very basis of our Justice System, our Courts. I don’t have to present any evidence for the reader to understand that the idea of obtaining a fair and speedy trial doesn’t represent the reality in America. This is true whether in criminal, or in civil cases. Why is this so?
My personal belief is that our courts are undermanned and underfunded because it suits the needs of those in power. Those with vast wealth in our country rarely are brought to trial and when they are, somehow the system works quicker on their behalf. Many Americans can’t even imagine that they would ever be criminally prosecuted and so pay little attention to the justice system, except when a sensational trial drives their attention. Therefore no politician ever got elected campaigning for more money for the courts. This is not some secret that I’ve discovered, but as you can see from the quotes above the delays in our justice system are not only spoken of as facts, but are used for justifications to shortcut its workings. Obviously, my solution to this is to put the money necessary into our courts. Beyond that though I believe it is time to end the insane “War on Drugs”, which is really a “War” on the poor and people of color. I believe that we should get rid of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing because it is not a deterrent and is an abomination of justice. I believe RICO should either be reformed or repealed as being beyond the intent of our Founding Fathers in the Constitution. I further believe that the offices of those who would be our prosecutors should be removed as “stepping stones” for higher political office. Prosecution can be a noble profession, but to be so must attract those of nobler intent, which in my opinions has become a rarity today. What do you think?