Plea bargains are a blight on our justice system
Some years ago, near where I live, a young man was accused of battery against another young man. The police investigated, and the prosecutor suggested that a plea bargain would be advisable. The family of the victim was outraged. The injuries to their loved one were significant, and the evidence seemed overwhelming. The prosecutor reluctantly agreed to forgo any plea bargain and took the case to criminal court. The defendant was acquitted.
The state used this event to justify the practice of offering plea bargains in this type of case. The defendant would likely have pleaded to a lesser charge, probably gotten a brief jail sentence, and been on record, which could enhance any future penalties for similar (or repeat) crimes. Instead, the accused went free, and the victim and his family felt betrayed. They were distraught. Perpetrators in similar circumstances have been known to taunt their victims, having been made immune to double jeopardy.
Are plea bargains justified?
In the law, little or nothing is ever certain. That in itself is a significant flaw, one of many. But for now, let's focus on plea bargains.
In that regard, yet another plea bargain case is instructive. Two men committed a violent home invasion and were caught. The case against them was conclusive, a slam-dunk. One of the men pleaded to a lesser charge and was sentenced to a year in jail, along with other penalties such as probation and restitution.
The other man (whom I personally met) took his chances in court, was convicted, was sentenced to twenty years' incarceration, and served seventeen of them.
Again, justice was not upheld. If the crime deserved a twenty-year prison sentence, it deserved it for both criminals. Why did one criminal get only one year for the identical crime that netted a twenty-year sentence for the other?
He got a lesser penalty, for no other reason than the convenience of the prosecutor. Prosecutors work on a limited budget, and keeping their job requires that they achieve a high conviction rate and large numbers of them. It has been said that if no accused criminal ever accepted a plea bargain to less than the justified penalty, the great majority of criminals would never suffer any legal penalty for their crimes. They would never even go to trial. If they did, the courts would be swamped beyond capacity.
However, there is a dark side to plea bargains. It is not unheard of for a completely innocent person, falsely accused, to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit, simply to avoid the risk of being thrown into the hellhole that some prisons are, there to languish for years on end. Pleading guilty to a crime that you know you did not commit must be a devastating experience, and on many levels. This is especially true if the prosecutor himself knows that the case is weak but that the defendant is vulnerable to pressure. The cost of hiring a lawyer can ruin a family financially. (Yet another flaw in the system.)
The recent case of the celebrity actresses, who used illegal means to get their daughters admitted into prestigious universities, has highlighted the scandal of plea bargains.
Actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to fourteen days' incarceration, plus other penalties including fines, after accepting a plea bargain.
Actress Lori Loughlin, as of this writing, has reportedly rejected any plea bargain and, according to reports, is therefore facing far more severe penalties than Huffman's.
True, there are important differences in the two cases, but the basic underlying crime is the same, which was to defraud more deserving students of their opportunity to get a college education. The penalties should be commensurate with the crime, not contingent on plea bargains. Plea bargains should not be legal as tools for the prosecution. Similar crimes should result in similar punishments.
(As the judge in Huffman's case pointed out, the college admissions system itself is distorted, but again, that is not the scandal being focused on here.)
Where is the justice? We all know that the criminal justice system in the United States, from the lowest level upward, is fraught with injustices, either through human weakness or through outright corruption. Repairing that system is absolutely essential to the survival of America as the nation it is intended to be.
Recent scandals, such as the college admissions, the Jussie Smollett case, and others, have brought a level of scrutiny to the justice system that should be expanded and intensified.
Left unremedied, matters are sure to get only worse. When the legal system becomes a casino, or a political transaction between lawyers, then none of us will be safe from its abuse. Be assured that those abuses will get worse.