Our criminal justice system has become a crime - opinion
Here's how it's supposed to work: Upon evidence that a crime has been committed — Professor Plum, found dead in the conservatory with a lead pipe on the floor next to him, say — the police commence an investigation. When they have probable cause to believe that someone is guilty, the case is taken to a prosecutor, who (in the federal system, and many states) puts it before a grand jury. If the grand jury agrees that there's probable cause, it indicts. The case goes to trial, where a jury of 12 ordinary citizens hears the evidence. If they judge the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they convict. If they think the accused not guilty — or even simply believe that a conviction would be unjust — they acquit.
Here's how things all-too-often work today: Law enforcement decides that a person is suspicious (or, possibly, just a political enemy). Upon investigation into every aspect of his/her life, they find possible violations of the law, often involving obscure, technical statutes that no one really knows. They then file a "kitchen-sink" indictment involving dozens, or even hundreds of charges, which the grand jury rubber stamps. The accused then must choose between a plea bargain, or the risk of a trial in which a jury might convict on one or two felony counts simply on a "where there's smoke there must be fire" theory even if the evidence seems less than compelling.
This is why, in our current system, the vast majority of cases never go to trial, but end in plea bargains. And if being charged with a crime ultimately leads to a plea bargain, then it follows that the real action in the criminal justice system doesn't happen at trial, as it does in most legal TV shows, but way before, at the time when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Because usually, once charges are brought, the defendant will wind up doing time for something.
The problem is that, although there's lots of due process at trial — right to cross-examine, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and, of course, the jury itself, which the Framers of our Constitution thought the most important protection in criminal cases — there's basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to "get" people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.
When juries decide not to convict because doing so would be unjust, it's called "jury nullification," and although everyone admits that it's a power juries have, many disapprove of it. But when prosecutors decide not to bring charges, it's called "prosecutorial discretion," and it's subject to far less criticism, if it's even noticed. As for prosecutorial targeting of disfavored groups or individuals, the general attitude is "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime."
The problem with that attitude is that, with today's broad and vague criminal statutes at both the state and federal level, everyone is guilty of some sort of crime, a point that Harvey Silverglate underscores with the title of his recent book, Three Felonies A Day: How The Feds Target The Innocent, that being the number of felonies that the average American, usually unknowingly, commits.
Such crimes can be manufactured from violations of obscure federal regulations that can turn pocketing a feather or taking home a rusted bit of metal from a wilderness area into a crime. In other cases, issues almost always dealt with in civil court, disagreements over taxes for instance, can be turned into a criminal case.
The combination of vague and pervasive criminal laws — the federal government literally doesn't know how many federal criminal laws there are — and prosecutorial discretion, plus easy overcharging and coercive plea-bargaining, means that where criminal law is concerned we don't really have a judicial system as most people imagine it. Instead, we have a criminal justice bureaucracy that assesses guilt and imposes penalties with only modest supervision from the judiciary, and with very little actual accountability. (When a South Carolina judge suggested earlier this year that prosecutors should follow the law, prosecutors revolted.)
In a recent Columbia Law Review essay, I suggest some remedies to this problem: First, prosecutors should have "skin in the game" — if someone's charged with 100 crimes but convicted of only one, the state should have to pay 99% of his legal fees. This would discourage overcharging. (So would judicial oversight, but we've seen little enough of that.) Second, plea-bargain offers should be disclosed at trial, so that judges and juries can understand just how serious the state really thinks the offense is. Empowering juries and grand juries (a standard joke is that any competent prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich) would also provide more supervision. And finally, I think that prosecutors should be stripped of their absolute immunity to suit — an immunity created by judicial activism, not by statute — and should be subject to civil damages for misconduct such as withholding evidence.
If our criminal justice system is to be a true justice system, then due process must attach at all stages. Right now, prosecutors run riot. That needs to change.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. http://www.amazon.com/New-School-Information-American-Education/dp/1594037108/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379957419&sr=1-7