Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Resistance is futile

Slate had an article earlier this week that I really need you all to read. I'll make it easy and provide you a link 'cause I'm a really good, considerate host like that. (Seriously, you should see the way I host book club. And that party I had in June of '10? Legendary!)

The article is all about the crushing weight of misdemeanors on our criminal justice system. Happily, misdemeanors are not something I have to deal with much because that really would be soul-crushing, much more so than murders. (Let's not get distracted by psychoanalyzing why I would rather deal with a dead body than a guy hitting another guy with a beer bottle...)

Put simply, misdemeanors have turned into a racket system where hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people are getting convicted without anything approaching due process or the effective assistance of counsel. There are simply so many charges and so many costs associated with fighting the charges that far too many people cop pleas without putting up a fight. Often, without understanding what the charges are to begin with.

I have personally witnessed the phenomenon of a prosecutor having charged a misdemeanor behaving as if it was now his god-given right to get a conviction out of the deal. Or at least a conversion. It just so happened in that particular case, the prosecutor had very much messed with the wrong marines and had a couple of aggressive defense attorneys with a personal stake in the outcome of the case who were not going to go along with an innocent man pleading to a misdemeanor just to make it go away.

But that particular innocent man benefitted from nothing more than serendipity. He happened to have defense attorneys on his speed dial (yay family!) but most people charged with misdemeanors aren't that lucky. So they plead, even if they don't think they're guilty, because they frankly don't know what else to do and don't have any real, viable options. Fighting it means days off work, which might cost a job. Coming up with money to pay a lawyer (who will probably want more than the court costs associated with a guilty plea would be). And even if you fight it, take all those days off work that you risk losing your job, pay a lawyer, you still face the risk of being convicted and having to pay the court costs and a fine on top of it all. It starts to make sense why even innocent people charged with ridiculous nonsense just give in and plea because fighting costs more (in every sense of the word).

Anyway, the ultimate point of the article is if we want to reform the criminal justice system, want to cut costs, make it more efficient and more effective, we really ought to take a big, hard look at the millions of misdemeanors we charge every year. And I agree.

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