Federal Lockups: Lost Hope, Guilty Pleas

One of the constant themes in both movies and television shows dealing with crime and the courts is the use of shortcuts by the authorities to nail someone who obviously is guilty. Messy things like due process of law and rights of the accused are so 1787 and have no place in modern society where outcomes are more important than the way one reaches those ends.

The ends can be frightening. The New York Times reports that one of the reasons that more than 94 percent of criminal charges in both state and federal cases end in plea bargains is that prosecutors can hang the prospect of stiff sentences over the heads of anyone who decided to go to trial and is found guilty, a situation that led Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to note that the American criminal justice system has become “a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”

Innocent people often are swept up on that tide of guilty pleas. Regular readers of this blog may understand this is so, but most Americans are incredulous. Why in the world would innocent people agree to plead to something they had not done? Is it not the situation in the USA that if you have done nothing wrong, you don’t have to worry about being charged or convicted?

Unfortunately, one of the things I hear most from people wrongfully accused of crimes has been, “I didn’t know this was happening in America.” Well, it does and much more often than one would think, especially with federal prosecutors, who have weapons at their disposal that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would have considered utterly barbaric.




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