Very interesting piece in the Times about the tough penalties for crimes, the discretion prosecutors get, and how this diminishes cases that go to trial–and the unseen cost, the concretization of the law.
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.
And there’s also the concentration of power with Prosecutors:
The transfer of power to prosecutors from judges has been so profound that an important trial ritual has become in some measure a lie, Mr. deVlaming said — the instructions judges read stating that the jury determines guilt or innocence, and the judge a proper sentence. The latter part is no longer true when mandatory minimums and, in many cases, sentencing guidelines apply, but jurors often do not know that.
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.”
Without question, plea bargains benefit many defendants who have committed crimes and receive lighter sentences than they might after trial. It also limits cases that require considerable time and expense in court.