How The Drug War Disappeared The Jury Trial

 

 

” The criminal jury trial is a vital check against prosecutorial excesses, police misconduct, and arbitrary state power. But over the last three decades, criminal justice policy has transferred enormous amounts of power to prosecutors and away from juries and judges. Judges once had wide discretion in weighing the facts and circumstances of each case prior to sentencing. Mandatory sentencing laws give control of sentencing proceedings to prosecutors instead, leading one federal judge to describe the process of sentencing someone to years in prison as having “all the solemnity of a driver’s license renewal and [taking] a small fraction of the time.”

  Prior to 1980, the percentage of cases resolved by guilty pleas was anything but consistent. But since then the trend has risen sharply from seventy-seven percent to, according to a recent Supreme Court case opinion, “[n]inety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.

  The prosecutor alone chooses whether to charge the accused, which charges to file, whether to drop charges, and whether or not a plea on lesser charges will be offered, outside of any judicial oversight. These unilateral discretionary decisions “often predetermine the outcome of a case since the sentencing judge has little, if any, discretion in determining the length, nature, and severity of the sentence.” This results in radically different sentencing outcomes between the sentence a defendant receives who loses at trial compared to one who pleads guilty.”

 

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