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November 20, 2010

"State Victim Advocate: Too Many Plea Deals"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new piece in the Hartford Courant.  Here are excerpts:

More than 95 percent of cases in the state's court system over the past four years were resolved without a trial, meaning too many end with plea bargains built on watered-down charges, the state victim advocate said Friday.  People have died as a result, specifically in domestic violence cases, said the advocate, Michelle Cruz.

Cruz outlined her concerns in a four-page letter to the state Office of Policy and Management Thursday.  She asked for a study of the number of criminal trials in the state, how long it takes to prosecute them, how many cases are resolved with plea bargains and why....

Although some sentences arise from plea deals for valid reasons, Cruz wrote, "the plea bargain process has been exploited."  Defendant often agree to plead guilty to a lesser charges in order to avoid a trial.  There are times when plea bargains are legitimate, Cruz said — such as if the state lacks evidence or wants to avoid having a child testify against someone who has sexually abused him or her.  But there are too many "administrative" plea bargains, she said.

"After three years of being in Connecticut looking at cases, what I see is a pattern of defendants who are allowed to plea to a more lenient charge that often doesn't resemble the conduct," said Cruz, who was a prosecutor in Massachusetts.  The lesser, substituted charge "doesn't reflect the seriousness of the offense," she said.

Her letter also said too many undeserving defendants are put in programs that keep them out of jail, and that, in general, court cases take too long to resolve.  Cruz cited some specific examples of what she considers improper plea deals:

--Charges in a manslaughter case stemming from a double-fatal, drunken driving crash on I-95 were reduced to driving under the influence and evading responsibility.

--A man who was put in a diversionary program after a domestic violence case later killed his wife and then himself in West Haven.

--A charge of violation of a protective order in a domestic violence case was reduced to breach of peace; the defendant has since been charged with killing another woman.

--A home invasion charge was reduced to burglary....

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, said he agrees that there are not enough trials and that it is a problem.  He said that he has spoken with Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane about the lack of trials — which he said is mostly a problem in lower courts where less serious cases are handled — and that Kane agrees there has to be more of an effort to bring cases to trial.

Lawlor, a criminal justice professor who also is a former state's attorney, said prosecutors who don't often take cases to trial get "rusty" and become more and more reluctant to try cases.  Good defense attorneys can sense this and will push for a better deal for their clients in exchange for a guilty plea, he said.  "I do think the end result is plea bargains are more lenient than you want them to be," Lawlor said.

Changes to encourage more trials, such as moving staff around and providing extra training, may happen in the next few years under the leadership of Gov.-elect Dannel Malloy, himself a former prosecutor, Lawlor said.

November 20, 2010 at 09:27 PM | Permalink

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When the Supremacy makes these self-evident points, shunned.

When the vile lawyer, criminal lover makes them, headlines.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 20, 2010 10:15:28 PM

There is too much crime. That is the bottom line. The rest is methods and tactics, of secondary importance. Each permitted crime cause direct and indirect damage. The average damage may be huge when added up. There are 20 million crimes, with a capacity for 2 million prosecutions. Each prosecution must therefore stand in for 10 crimes. It is impossible to manage crime with the current methods of 1275 AD.

What remains is status. You the person. It is committing dozens of crimes a year, due to character. It is impulsive, selfish, and aggressive. It may change at age 50, if lucky.

Only incapacitation works. With 123D, there would be 90% less crime because there would be 90% fewer criminals alive.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 21, 2010 8:41:50 PM

As a prosecutor in the Bay Area of California, I could not agree more that there are too few trials, however while I agree that too many prosecutors are incentivized to plea bargain, I would add the following as reasons why.

Many judges see it as their responsibility to settle cases (something you will not find in the California Constitution for the role of the judiciary), rather than providing a neutral forum for the resolution of a criminal case according to the rules. Despite the fact that plea bargaining by the court is prohibited by case law and statute, it goes on nearly every day in California State courts. Most judges have been doing it so long, they do not even know it is illegal to do so. In my office, this more than anything has been a major factor in reducing trials. The disturbing part is the way the court does this. Often the court will offer the defendant a substantially reduced sentence if they plead guilty thus incentivizing even the innocent to plead guilty. THIS IS VERY DANGEROUS when prosecutors do it, it is even more dangerous when judges do it because judges have the power to actually punish the defendant with a more severe sentence if convicted, the prosecutor can just recommend a sentence.

Additionally, there is a receptive environment (here in the Bay Area at least) to weak or baseless accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, whether it be made by the newspaper, by a defense attorney in court or on appeal. Why try a case and risk the accusations of misconduct by everyone under the sun when you can have a nice easy guilty plea. Trials are difficult and require massive amounts of time and effort to do them well and it is quite easy to make a mistake. Most of the time the mistakes have no impact on the proceedings, but there are people out there who view every mistake as intentional misconduct and will say so. Then there is the newspaper which reports every mistake as misconduct.

I believe that in order for the system to be reliable there must be more trials. Jurors will see what is really going on in their community, attorneys on both sides will become better advocates thus increasing the reliability of the results, and defendants will get the sentence that their conduct deserves when they are not offered a huge discount just to say the word guilty. Finally, there will be more acquittals which will remind us prosecutors that beyond a reasonable doubt is just that and losing a case here and there is not the end of the world or a black mark on an otherwise ethical prosecutorial career.

Posted by: David | Nov 21, 2010 9:28:05 PM

David: Believe or not, your job is to protect the public and not to have a lot of anti-scientific lawyer procedure. The trial itself has no scientific validation. It comes from the Scholasticist method of disputation, as a method of arriving at the answer of a difficult question. The rules of evidence violate multiple tenets of formal logic, critical thinking theory, and most do not meet Daubert standards. Then you have a jury. In 1275 AD it was a good advance. The jurors had knowledge. They brought the wisdom of the crowd. Those benefits have been removed. You now have twelve strangers who will be using their gut feelings to detect the truth, when lie detectors are prohibited. They will detect likability, if lucky, and no more. The lawyer is excluding people with knowledge, and even people married to people with knowledge.

Next, you hobble the most experienced person in court, the judge. This is the oldest lawyer, who may have done the jobs of the lawyers, and has the biggest experience. If he so much as drives by the crime scene, you will crush the judge. Why? The trial is a fictional play. Any attempt to introduce real facts cannot be tolerated.

The criminal law, your professional specialty, is in utter failure. It has a high false negative rate. It has a high false positive rate. It uses methods from the 13th Century, when anyone else trying to would be arrested as a threat to public safety.

Here is one potential remedy. I propose to exclude all lawyers from all benches, legislative seats and responsible policy positions in the executive. Waiting for that to come about, an intermediate remedy would be to end all self-dealt immunities. Prosecutors and judges should be held to professional standards of due care. They qualify for strict liability because their sole product is punishment. However, that would be too draconian and would ruin them.

There is no justification for prosecutorial or judge immunity from either defendant nor from future crime victims. I find it funny when ALI types dispute this idea as a potential cause of litigation explosion.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 21, 2010 10:14:33 PM

Investigator-the Victim Advocate needs to realize is that A + B does not necessarily equal C. More trials and less pleas do not mean more people go to prison. So what is the hoped-for results? Does she want fifty percent more cases to go to trial and hope that half will result in guilty verdicts? Ms. Cruz has every right to bring her information forward as it is important to have these discussions, but I am not sure that her solution is going to get what she wants.

Posted by: Randy | Nov 22, 2010 7:16:45 PM

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