By Amy Alkon
shared this story
from Advice Goddess Blog.
Our Rigged Criminal Justice System
Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes at USA Today about the sleazy tactics of law enforcement and prosecutors, fishing like mad for ways to declare people guilty (of something, anything) and then plea bargaining them into saying they were (with the threat of a pricey trial hanging over their heads). This means that:
The real action in the criminal justice system doesn’t happen at trial, as it does in most legal TV shows, but way before, at the time when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Because usually, once charges are brought, the defendant will wind up doing time for something.
The problem is that, although there’s lots of due process at trial — right to cross-examine, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and, of course, the jury itself, which the Framers of our Constitution thought the most important protection in criminal cases — there’s basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to “get” people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.
When juries decide not to convict because doing so would be unjust, it’s called “jury nullification,” and although everyone admits that it’s a power juries have, many disapprove of it. But when prosecutors decide not to bring charges, it’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s subject to far less criticism, if it’s even noticed. As for prosecutorial targeting of disfavored groups or individuals, the general attitude is “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”
The problem with that attitude is that, with today’s broad and vague criminal statutes at both the state and federal level, everyone is guilty of some sort of crime, a point that Harvey Silverglate underscores with the title of his recent book, Three Felonies A Day: How The Feds Target The Innocent, that being the number of felonies that the average American, usually unknowingly, commits.
Such crimes can be manufactured from violations of obscure federal regulations that can turn pocketing a feather or taking home a rusted bit of metal from a wilderness area into a crime. In other cases, issues almost always dealt with in civil court, disagreements over taxes for instance, can be turned into a criminal case.
The combination of vague and pervasive criminal laws — the federal government literally doesn’t know how many federal criminal laws there are — and prosecutorial discretion, plus easy overcharging …read more