Friday, October 7, 2011

(Short) Good and Mad Reading for the (Long) Weekend

In the news lately, there's been a lot of stuff about how prosecutors abuse their power, and we've blogged about it here and here.  Mandatory minimum sentences play a large role in this abuse, because they're the sledgehammers prosecutors use to get people to plead guilty -- even if they're not.

Today, Dan K. Thomasson of the Scripps Howard News Service adds this brief but maddening article to the conversation about prosecutors run amok.  Here's an excerpt:
... prosecutors, most of whom are elected, use the threat of felonies with long prison terms to extract guilty pleas to lesser charges as a way of clearing cases without going to trial. Implicit in this for the victim is the specter of expensive, debilitating trials. What the accused miss is their day in court. As a result the number of trials in America's courts has dropped substantially, according to news reports.
Adoption of heavy mandatory sentences for some crimes has contributed considerably to the situation, making judges at all levels less and less relevant to a system that now more than ever rests in the hands of the prosecutors. Many of the prosecutors on the state and local levels view the position as a way to catapult themselves into higher political or lucrative private positions or to maintain holds on their current jobs, sometimes for decades. The infamous Duke University lacrosse case where team members were callously accused of sexual abuse of a dancer is the latter. The prosecutor, who was up for reelection, not only was forced to drop the charges but also lost his license to practice law and was briefly incarcerated.
Particularly disturbing is the tendency of many prosecutors to resist ever admitting that the person against whom they have won a conviction is in fact not guilty despite overwhelming evidence, including at times, DNA and recanting witnesses. There is a growing list of the wrongly convicted from death row to lesser sites who have been finally released over the long standing objections of prosecutors.
This series of articles raises important questions. Who do we trust to do justice in the United States? How much power they should have? Not all prosecutors abuse their power, but removing mandatory minimum sentences from a prosecutor's arsenal would take away one tempting means of abuse and would increase fairness in our system.