The Collapse of American Criminal Justice

There was some pushback a couple of week's ago on William Stuntz's argument about increased prosecutorial power. A little more on that point:

"We now have an incredible concentration of power in the hands of prosecutors," said Richard E. Myers II, a former assistant United States attorney who is now an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina. He said that so much influence now resides with prosecutors that "in the wrong hands, the criminal justice system can be held hostage." 

One crucial, if unheralded, effect of this shift is now coming into sharper view, according to academics who study the issue. Growing prosecutorial power is a significant reason that the percentage of felony cases that go to trial has dropped sharply in many places. 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.

The Times details how the process works: Armed with an array of laws, and mandatory minimums, prosecutors are essentially able to extort plea-bargains and bully defendants out jury trials:

Cases like Florida v. Shane Guthrie help explain why. After Mr. Guthrie, 24, was arrested here last year, accused of beating his girlfriend and threatening her with a knife, the prosecutor offered him a deal for two years in prison plus probation. 

Mr. Guthrie rejected that, and a later offer of five years, because he believed that he was not guilty, his lawyer said. But the prosecutor's response was severe: he filed a more serious charge that would mean life imprisonment if Mr. Guthrie is convicted later this year. 

Because of a state law that increased punishments for people who had recently been in prison, like Mr. Guthrie, the sentence would be mandatory. So what he could have resolved for a two-year term could keep him locked up for 50 years or more...

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."

While the attention here is on prosecutors, it's important to understand that the current criminal justice system is really the result of electoral democracy. It's not that prosecutors are a nefarious class of humans, it's that Americans have proved unwilling to pay for the kind of staffing in prosecutors, and cops, that a functioning criminal justice system would require.

For most of the twentieth century in the Northeast and Midwest, the ratio of police officers to prison inmates was two to one. Today, it is less than one to two. "More than any other statistic," Stuntz writes, "that one captures what is most wrong with American criminal justice." More cops mean more deterrence. More deterrence means fewer arrests and fewer convictions. In the 1990s, New York City had the biggest drop in urban crime during the decade. It also had the biggest increase in its police force... 

And too much power for prosecutors doesn't mean there are enough of them: Stuntz calls for many more, so there are more lawyers to litigate cases and the pressure on them to obtain plea bargains is alleviated. That would also require more money for public defenders to represent defendants in court.

Of course we end up paying anyway. It's not like prisons are cheap.