More Power For Prosecutors?

One wonders if we’ll ever reach an upward limit.

From the New York Times, an interesting and topical article about the vanishing trial, the “trial tax”, plea bargaining, judges whose hands are tied leaving them free to play more golf because the executive (prosecutors) and legislatures have all the power.

Lots of good bullet points here:

In 1977, the year Judge Kane was appointed to the bench, the ratio of guilty pleas to criminal trial verdicts in federal district courts was a little more than four to one; by last year, it was almost 32 to one.

Here in Florida, which has greatly toughened sentencing since the 1990s, felony defendants who opt for trial now routinely face the prospect of higher charges that mean prison terms 2, 5, or even 20 times as long as if they had pleaded guilty. In many cases, the process is reversed, and stiffer charges are dismissed in return for a plea.

Legal scholars like Paul Cassell, a conservative former federal judge and prosecutor who is now a law professor at the University of Utah, describe the power shift as a zero-sum game.

“Judges have lost discretion, and that discretion has accumulated in the hands of prosecutors, who now have the ultimate ability to shape the outcome,” Mr. Cassell said. “With mandatory minimums and other sentencing enhancements out there, prosecutors can often dictate the sentence that will be imposed.”

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, after studying partial data on state-court felony prosecutions nationwide, found that from 1986 to 2006 the ratio of pleas to trials nearly doubled.

The shift has been clearer in federal district courts. After tougher sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980s, the percentage of criminal cases taken to trial fell to less than 3 percent last year, from almost 15 percent, according to data from the State University at Albany’s Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. The explosion of immigration prosecutions, where trials are rare, skews the numbers, but the trend is evident even when those cases are not included.

Nearly nine of every 10 cases ended in pleas last year, the federal data show, while one in 12 were dismissed (the percentage of dismissed cases was substantially higher a generation ago).

The number of acquittals dropped even further. Last year, there was only one acquittal for every 212 guilty pleas or trial convictions in federal district courts. Thirty years ago, the ratio was one for every 22.

Some federal prosecutors worried that their power would be weakened by a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that made sentencing guidelines advisory only. But academics say the ruling had much less effect than what some predicted as many judges still largely follow the guidelines, and the ruling did not affect other laws that have given prosecutors more power.

So, too, do many judges faced with cases where legislatively mandated penalties do not square with their idea of justice.

Like the one in Polk County, Fla. that began when Orville Wollard said he fired his registered handgun into his living room wall to scare his daughter’s boyfriend out of the house after he repeatedly threatened his family.

In Mr. Wollard’s view, he was protecting his family and did not try to hurt the boyfriend, who was not hit, though the judge said the bullet missed him by inches. But after Mr. Wollard turned down a plea offer of five years of felony probation, prosecutors won a conviction two years ago for aggravated assault with a firearm. Because the gun was fired, a mandatory-minimum law required a 20-year term.

At his sentencing, Mr. Wollard said he felt as if he were in “some banana republic” and described the boyfriend as a violent drug dealer. But prosecutors said the judge had “no discretion” because of the state law.

Reluctantly, the judge agreed. “If it weren’t for the mandatory minimum aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence,” he told Mr. Wollard, adding that he was “duty bound” to impose 20 years.

On that last one, I am reminded of the Ted Knight character from Caddyshack, a judge who tells the young lead character that he had sentenced boys younger than him to death:  “Didn’t want to do it.  Felt I owed it to them.”  Here it is, at about the 1:27 mark:






Filed under financial crisis, Judicial lying/cheating, Striking lawyers, wrongful convictions

3 responses to “More Power For Prosecutors?

  1. Zarepheth

    These minimum sentance laws are inherently messed up. The whole purpose of the judge and jury at the sentancing phase is to make sure that the punishment fits the crime. Considering the vast differences in circumstances from one crime to another, no one-size-fits-all approach can ever come close to providing true justice in most, let alone all cases.


  2. There is a petition on which calls for Mr. Wollard’s twenty year sentence to be commuted by Governor Rick Scott of Florida. Anyone who thinks the outcome in this case was totally unjust is invited to sign it. It will be presented to the Governor in due time.


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