Happy Independence Day…At one time, the Courts routinely rejected plea bargains. It was not until 1970 when the U. S. Supreme Court in Brady v. United States held that plea deals were Constitutional. However, the Court also warned at the time that plea deals which were coercive or too out of line with the goals of justice were to be avoided.
Opinion by C J Oakes
Fast-forward nearly five decades and the situation today is out of control, so much so that nearly 98% of Federal cases are bargained. For good reason, a Federal judge recently did something out of the ordinary — he tossed a plea deal made with an accused heroin and fentanyl dealer. Why should we care?
Plea Deals in Drug Cases Undermine Public Safety?
To be clear, Judge Joseph R. Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia appears to draw the plea bargain line at drug offenses. His argument is sound, however. He stated that when plea bargains are made, juries do not get to hear the evidence in a case. This leads to increased apathy towards drug offenses by the public because after a trial, people talk about the case with neighbors. This exposes more people to the ugly side of the illicit drug trade and keeps them opposed to legalization. Makes sense, right?
Not really; relying on stories to dissuade crime is not a good reason to oppose plea agreements. This argument is like saying that we should bring back public executions as a way to discourage murder. The fact is that no evidence has ever surfaced that public executions are effective as a deterrence and the same is likely with juries talking to the public about what they heard and saw during a trial. The reasoning is not sound.
Plea Bargains DO Undermine Public Safety
Judge Goodwin is right in his claim that plea bargains undermine public safety, but his reasoning is flawed. To understand why, consider who benefits from plea deals.
- The Guilty – Plea deals help those guilty of a crime to reduce their sentence.
- Prosecutors – Plea bargains help prosecutors record victories, inflating their records for voters expecting a tough on crime approach. In other words, they can be soft on crime while appearing tough.
- Judges – Judges become paper-pushers, no longer having to weigh the merits of a case, they can simply rubber-stamp the results. This increases the number of cases they successfully handle, increasing their chances of promotion or reelection.
Who does NOT Benefit from Plea Bargains?
- The Innocent
- The Public
Those who are innocent of a crime do not benefit from plea deals. Often, those who are innocent cannot afford legal counsel, so settle on a public defender. Because most public defenders are overloaded with cases, it is not in their interest to take the case to trial, so they often pressure innocent persons to accept a deal. Too, those innocent are often faced with the possibility of a long sentence and tarnished reputation via a public trial so a reduced sentence, though unjust, can be appealing by comparison. If a person is innocent, any ‘deal’ is a perversion of justice.
Which brings us to the public.
The people of any civilized society should be offended at any system that offers a way out for the guilty while intentionally punishing the innocent. Such a system is NOT justice, but rather is an affront to the concept. The goal of justice should be to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Anything else corrupts the system, erodes public support, and ultimately leads to revolution.
Don’t believe that statement?
Just ask the Founding Fathers. Among the key reasons given for separation from England were…
- obstruction of justice
- official harassment
- official corruption, murder, and the protection of those engaging in these acts
- depriving the people of trial by jury
- trumped up charges
- preventing families and the public from witnessing trial
In other words, justice was not being served by England and the Founding Fathers ultimately lost faith in that government. The solution was something which many opposed. In fact, only 40% of the colonists supported Revolution. The others were divided between loyalty to England and a desire to stay out of the conflict.
The same danger exists today. With a justice system intent on meting out injustice, it is only a matter of time before enough of our people cry enough. If that happens, no one is safe.
Plea Bargains DO undermine public safety and should be done away with. Enough.
Happy Independence Day!