Nothing but the truth!
September 29, 2011 (San Diego)--The US Constitution guarantees a trail by a jury of your peers, a guarantee that has lasted 235 years. But increasingly, the power of prosecutors to plea-bargain using sentencing enhancements means that jury trials are the exception rather than the rule.
State legislators have made so many sentencing enhancements that prosecutors regularly plea-bargain defendants by threatening to use draconian long sentences for the most benign misdemeanors. By threatening to prosecute misdemeanors as felonies, defendants are frightened into pleading guilty to avoid sentencing enhancements
According the NY Times:
"Plea bargains have been common for more than a century, but lately they have begun to put the trial system out of business in some courtrooms. By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts."
While it is true plea bargains save money, the question of whether justice is served becomes confusing. In many slam-dunk cases involving multiple crimes, a plea bargain may be cost-effective and rational. But in other cases innocent defendants may be coerced into a guilty plea to avoid a long prison sentence.
Clearly, prosecutors appreciate the power given to them with
application of sentencing enhancements. The use of these charges is purely up to the prosecutor. A simple display of a weapon can easily become attempted murder and get you 25 to life. There are also sentencing enhancements if you are under the influence, using a prohibited drug, belong to a gang, or showing racial animus. What used to be a misdemeanor fist fight can easily become aggravated mayhem.
Prosecutors are judged, rightly or wrongly, by the number of people they imprison. Whether or not these people deserve imprisonment is not part of the equation. Add to this the three-strikes law, and you can get into so real legal puzzles. In California, a man was sentenced to 25 to life for stealing a piece of pizza. Another got the same for stealing a DVD from K-Mart.
It is unclear to legal scholars if the right to a jury trial can survive. in the current climate of paranoia, the jury trial may soon be replaced by a magistrate, making the US Constitution just another legal anachronism. Will Powers is a retired history teacher and creative writing instructor. The views expressed in this editorial do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine.