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February 4, 2009

Detailed local account of plea realities (and state/federal disparities)

The Iowa City Press Citizen has this notable piece discussing local plea practices. The piece, which is titled "Plea deals: Are they soft or necessary?", covers a story surely familiar to many practitioners, but one that is not often fully appreciated by the public (or many academics).  Here are some excerpts:

From 2002 to 2007, Iowa City police officers charged 74 people with second-degree robbery.  Sixty-one of those arrests -- or 82 percent -- resulted in pleas to or convictions of lesser offenses, according to a review of court records.  However, while that number might seem high, it's actually in line with national figures....

Tom Sneddon, interim executive director of the National District Attorney Association, said that doesn't mean 95 percent of cases are plea bargained, however.  Some criminals will plead as charged, he said.  You're talking clearly in the 80s (percent) where there was some kind of bargain struck," Sneddon said. "That is very, very common practice. It's the only way the court system survives."

While the disparity between charges filed by police and dispositions made in the court system might be surprising to many, neither the police nor the Johnson County Attorney said the plea bargain figures were unexpected.  "I think this is true, not just with robberies, but across the board with charges, period," Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said.

Sgt. Mike Brotherton, who leads Iowa City's gang and drug team, said he sees the same disparity between charges and plea deals. While it is frustrating for officers, Brotherton said there are further reaching implications.  "What you don't see is what the consequences are," Brotherton said. "What's the end result? Very, very few go to prison."...

Brotherton has found at least one way to avoid this issue -- he takes cases to the federal court system.  However, it's not easy to elevate a case to that level, he said.  In drug cases, there must be sizeable quantities of drugs involved.  If a weapon is involved, the case can possibly go to the federal level as well.

These criteria are based on guidelines for crimes that are indictable at the federal level and ensure that the federal courts only get cases that are appropriate for their jurisdiction.  All types of robberies are prosecuted at the state level, but bank robberies often are prosecuted federally because of their federal protection.

This article is intriguing for many reasons, but I find especially interesting the willingness of a senior state police officer to state to a reporter that he actively "tries to make a federal case" out of some local crimes because of his concerns about undue leniency in the state sentencing system. 

February 4, 2009 at 06:19 PM | Permalink


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Surprise surprise, a cop, who sees the problems with recidivist criminals, tries to make it such that some of the recidivist criminals actually do time and don't commit more crimes.

Just goes to show that with all the whining about how mean our criminal justice system is, it's considerably nicer to some criminals than it needs to be.

By the way, a robber needs to be put away for a while. How'd you like to be some innocent citizen who gets held up by a thug only to get to see him again soon after he's arrested? My guess is that you wouldn't. This is also why you need the hammer of stiff sentences--makes the plea deals better for the prosecutor.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 4, 2009 6:33:00 PM

--and also induces innocent defendants to plead guilty.

Posted by: Poirot | Feb 4, 2009 7:26:12 PM

So, if everyone is agreed that plea bargaining is a bad thing, can we find ways to make trials go faster and cost less, so less plea bargaining is needed?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 4, 2009 7:29:50 PM

I dislike plea agreements because they pervert the course of justice. They make it more likely that people who are innocent will plea just to make the whole matter go away while it lets guilty people off easy. Ideally, Kent would be right, we would have a speedy and fair trial. The problem is that as a society we have already made a decision that we are not willing to pay for fair and speedy trials. We pass law after law after law knowing full well that we are not willing to pay for full and fair enforcement and prosecution of those laws.

Personally, I would like to see a much smaller, more efficient, legal system (including a lot less lawyers). But I believe that is impossible in a society why the political response to every problem is to pass another law. So that leave two possible solutions, a sprawling legal and justice system that is very expensive, or a sprawling legal and justice system that is cheaper but messy and inefficient.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 4, 2009 8:00:18 PM

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