Since the 1980's, when the United States starting seeing the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences and "tough on crime" laws, there's been a steady transference of power away from the judges and the nation's people—and directly into the hands of the nation's prosecutors.
This had lead to a legal system that's increasingly slanted against defendants, so much so that barely any now go to trial. In 1980, 19 percent of federal defendants went to trial. By 2010, less than 3 percent went to trial, and the numbers have hovered there ever since.
People end up pleading guilty to crimes even when they're innocent or when there's really not enough evidence to convict them in a system based heavily on intimidation and the prosecutor's ability to charge crimes as he or she sees fit. It works like this:
-- A defendant gets picked up for selling an ounce of an illegal drug to a friend. There's no evidence that the defendant is anything other than an occasional user who picks up the drugs for himself and a few others in his social circle.
-- The prosecutor offers the defendant a deal: He or she can plead guilty the personal sale of an ounce of the drug and accept the prosecutor's recommended sentence (which involved relatively little jail time, if any). The prosecutor makes the offer as quickly as possible with a time limit on it, while holding onto all the information and evidence—hopefully before the defendant has a chance to get private counsel.
-- The prosecutor lets the defendant know that if he or she refuses the deal, the charges will be "upped" to conspiracy for being part of a long distribution line of a mass quantity of drugs. The drug conspiracy charges carry lengthy mandatory minimum sentences and the prosecutor will ask the judge for the maximum.
-- Terrified, the defendant accepts the plea, not realizing the long-term consequences he or she will now face as a result of an unnecessary conviction.
How serious is this problem? Roughly 10 percent of those later found legally innocent have pleaded guilty under that kind of pressure.
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