By Seth Richardson
Justice is always costly, and its wheels grind slowly. We know this and accept it as a necessary part of civilization. But a prosecutor should reduce no person’s life or liberty, neither the accused nor the victim, to a financial calculation or a matter of expedience.
As it stands however, too often access to justice comes down to whether or not the prosecutor can find a plausible (or even not so plausible) reason to charge the defendant with several crimes in order to induce him to plead to a lesser charge, thus saving the cost and trouble of prosecution. That’s not justice, that’s expedience.
Plea-bargaining is a miscarriage of justice in every respect. And it all too often leads to innocent people pleading guilty in order to avoid harsh penalties for crimes they did not commit. If we, as a society, cannot afford to prosecute each and every violation of the law while respecting the rights of the accused in full, then we should not be prosecuting such laws at all. Selective prosecution and plea-bargaining are too often used as tools of oppression and discrimination against the ignorant, poor and socially disadvantaged. And in the obverse, it allows the cunning and well-heeled guilty to escape just punishment for their crimes merely through the threat of costly and time-consuming trials.
The calculus of justice must be based on the severity of the crime, the strength of the evidence against the accused, and the needs of society to be protected against that individual in the future. If the prosecutor cannot economically and socially justify a full and fair trial for a particular defendant, then the prosecutor must elect not to prosecute at all. Better yet, if the economic burden of a particular law is too great because of the large number of people violating it, it’s worth considering whether the law should exist at all. If there is a shortfall in judicial funding, then all the prosecutor has to do is ask us for more money and abide by the budgetary restrictions we place upon him. It’s up to the public to decide how much justice they can afford, and a society will have precisely as much crime as it is willing to tolerate.
Our legal codes are stuffed with petty, niggling laws to a degree that makes it impossible for any individual to go through life for a single day without violating some law. Many of these laws do not protect society against palpable harm; they are little more than revenue generators, to be wielded like a blunt instrument against the small and powerless by the mighty in an exercise and aggregation of naked power and control. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nowhere does power pose a greater danger to life, liberty and property than when it is in the hands of a prosecutor, whose decisions are absolute and whose liability is non-existent. Prosecutors are absolutely immune for their actions, no matter how egregiously they may abuse their authority. The only recourse is to unelect them, but that’s small comfort to those already wrongfully convicted or coerced into pleading guilty out of fear to a crime they did not commit.
This is not to say that our local prosecutors are corrupt. I see no evidence of this. But wherever power lies, corruption waits, hiding in the crevices like mold, waiting for the right environmental conditions to spring to life and infect everything around it. So it is our duty as citizens to keep a close eye on those in power and to limit those powers where necessary, to inoculate the system against corruption to the greatest degree possible, consistent with the duties we lay upon our elected officials. Eliminating the plea bargain is one way of reducing the danger of miscarriages of justice and stemming corruption before it begins.
Defenders of plea-bargaining will make the argument that the entire justice system will grind to a halt if plea-bargaining is disallowed. Perhaps it will, but only if those who are responsible for deciding which cases to prosecute choose to make it happen by wasting public resources prosecuting victimless crimes and cases that neither serve any legitimate need for justice nor protect the public against any real harm. Such arguments for expedience must be rejected because fundamental rights are at stake.
We should not give the prosecutor a motive to engage in coercive misconduct. By being allowed to threaten someone with multiple counts and every vaguely associated crime he can think of in order to induce a plea by a person who, by law and by our fundamental societal beliefs, enjoys a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the prosecutor makes his job easier, keeps his record of convictions spotless, and enhances the judicial system’s budget.
But if the crime is serious enough to warrant any prosecution at all, then the prosecutor must be compelled to try that case before a jury of the defendant’s peers each and every time, without regard for the costs involved, or the profit to be had, and without suborning and engaging in perjury before the court.
And that is exactly what happens when a defendant is coerced into pleading guilty to a lesser crime or even unrelated offense. Both the defendant and the prosecutor must stand before the judge and perjure themselves by falsely swearing to negotiated untruths. Such routine violations of the prosecutor’s oath of office debase our system of justice, which depends for its credibility upon the adherence to oaths and honesty. And too often such institutionalized and cavalier disregard for the truth leads prosecutors to abuse their discretion and their authority.
Justice is a harsh taskmistress. She is blind to all but the evidence, and if the prosecutor cannot prove the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt based on the evidence, then the defendant must be freed. And there is no way to meet that burden of proof without a trial. This heavy burden of proof requires careful attention to the details and expertise in collecting, evaluating and presenting evidence, which is as it should be. To allow the police and prosecutors to be sloppy and slipshod in expectation of a plea bargain endangers us all. It is better that ten guilty men go free than that an innocent man go to prison.
Justice requires more of us than expedience, and the evidence of falsely accused persons who plead guilty and languish in prison as a result of prosecutorial coercion and misconduct increases every day as more and more innocent people are released based on exculpatory DNA evidence.
Ban plea bargains and let justice prevail, though the heavens fall.
© 2009 Altnews