By Lindsay Rennick, Contributing Writer
The current United States criminal justice system has managed to avoid following the constitution. Over 97 percent of the prisoners in the U.S. prison system today are there without ever standing before a jury for a trial, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This statistic shows a sharp contrast from the Sixth Amendment, which states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.”
Of America’s over two million prisoners, few have been able to partake in this right that was promised to all citizens of the United States. Citizens facing charges are strongly encouraged by their attorneys to take plea bargains. A plea bargain ensures that if a defendant admits to their supposed crimes, they will receive a shorter sentence than if they went to trial and were found guilty. In other words, if a defendant uses their right to a trial by jury they will be punished with a longer sentence. Our justice system is rewarding people for not partaking in the rights that are promised to everyone in the United States.
While the benefits that come with the plea bargain are numerous, they are not beneficial for all parties involved. Plea bargains save the time and cost of lawyers who would have to be in court with their client. Judges are saved time since they are not present during the negotiations of the bargain. Plea bargains have traditionally promised privacy for all involved; the prosecution is not mandated to report the process of how the deal was reached to anyone. The bottom line is that plea bargains save everyone time and money. When plea bargains are agreed to, the United States no longer is responsible for paying for trials. The defendant is rewarded for their compliance to these budget cuts with a shorter sentence.
As plea bargains become the status quo, we, as a nation, communicate that we do not think that justice is worth the time and money it requires. Our lack of outrage shows that we are okay with our fellow Americans being punished for demanding their rights as citizens of the U.S.
Every day people are pressured into admitting to crimes they may or may not have committed in the name of convenience. William G. Otis, a former Appellate Division chief at the U.S. attorney’s office, explained that “the squeezed economics of the system virtually demand that almost all cases be processed by watered-down negotiation rather than by trial.” People are not sentenced by a judge and jury as is ensured to each citizen by the constitution, but rather by lawyers looking for a quick seal of approval by an uninvolved judge.
We, as a nation, must reevaluate how our justice system is organized. Do we see the normalization of the plea bargain as an obstruction of justice or as an easy way to save our time and resources? Do we agree that people should be punished for exercising their constitutional rights to a trial and be rewarded for foregoing it? We must decide if the lives of those found on the wrong side of the justice system are worth fighting for and advocating on behalf of, or if they should be swallowed by our broken judicial process.