Assembly-line justice

One result of the explosion in size and complexity of criminal law in the US is that our courts are overburdened and face such a heavy caseload that mistakes in the pursuit of justice are a regular occurrence.  TV shows like CSI give the public the false idea that forensic evidence is carefully gathered and is used to identify the actual perpetrator in most crimes.  In fact, no evidence is collected in most criminal cases and none is needed, because the police simply arrest the “usual” or “most likely” suspects and the defendants are forced to plead guilty.  Precisely because the court system is so overloaded, getting guilty pleas from over 90% of defendants is the only way to clear the relentless caseload, so judges, prosecutors, and police are placed in a position where they feel they must abuse their powers to get guilty pleas, just to deal with their caseloads in a timely manner.

On the face of it, this seems wildly improbable.  Why would even a guilty person plead guilty, much less someone who insists he is innocent?  But it happens because the explosion of bad statute law has given prosecutors and police the tools they need to systematically coerce defendants into pleading guilty.

Even for trivial offenses, prosecutors can now stack an essentially unlimited number of serious charges, many with high mandatory sentences, and threaten the defendant with the prospect of spending 40 or 50 years in prison if he insists on a trial and loses.  Lawyers, especially public defendants (who are almost uniformly underpaid and overworked, in some cases spending barely an hour with each client), will therefore urge even innocent clients to accept a plea bargain with a sentence of 6 months to 5 years, and most defendants feel they have no choice but to accept.  (Or, if they feel overwhelmed by the unfairness of the situation and cannot deal with the prospect of imprisonment, they decide to commit suicide; see the furor over prosecutorial abuse in the Aaron Swartz case.)

As a result, only a tiny fraction of defendants ever go to trial or feel that they received justice; our prisons are overflowing; and the people in them have little hope of a good future when they’re released.  Not only are their lives ruined, their families and friends are embittered by the injustice and their children’s lives and chances for a good education are severely disrupted, contributing to the next generation of poverty and crime.

 

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