“Vindictive and retaliatory” prosecutions: Welcome to the USA!

What happens when you exercise your constitutional right to a trial by jury? Well, if you have sex on a beach in Florida and take the case to trial you might get 15 years in prison and have to register as a sex offender for life. As Jonathan Turley explains, this is just how prosecutors operate these days:

prosecutors now take the view that if they [sic] demand for a plea is ignored, they are relieved on any further duty to be reasonable and just in their indictments and sentencing arguments. I have seen this happen over and over again. It is vindictive and retaliatory against those who want to go to trial. I have had prosecutors tell me that “this is how the game is played” — you defy the state on a plea and they throw the book at you. However, the result is clogging our jails with excessive sentences and maintaining a crippling threat against those who simply want to seek a verdict on their charges.

He’s right, of course. And it’s sad. As one of the commenters on Turley’s page pointed out, the same “crime” in Dubai would only get you 3 months jail and deportation. And this is in a country that still observes parts of Sharia law.

It’s insane that we have laws that would make it possible to imprison someone for 15 years and register for life for having sex on a beach — even in front of children. But it’s equally insane that prosecutors refuse to exercise their discretion to achieve justice. Instead of justice we get ruined lives — not just for the people so perversely punished, but for all of us who have to pay for their incarceration and for the endless bureaucracy and litigation that comes from attempting to enforce sex offender registration requirements. What is the point of all this?

The only hope for these people is that they are before a judge that will have the courage to stand up to this prosecutor and give a sentence more appropriate to the crime. That hope is slim, but I wish them luck.

Courtroom 302: Criminal justice, Cook County style

I just finished reading Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse by Steve Bogira

My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

This was my second time reading this book. I read it first in about 2004 or 2005 while in law school, and recently picked it up again when I started working for the Cook County Public Defender. The book does a great job of giving readers a well-rounded understanding of how the criminal justice system functions in one of the most populous counties with one of the biggest (and most overcrowded) jails in the country. From Bogira’s vantage point, it appears that lower level felony cases are just processed through the system, primarily with pleas or bench trials, while major, “heater” cases that capture public attention for some reason, get jury trials and a *little* more deliberative process. The book’s focus on Circuit Judge Daniel Locallo is fascinating, but by no means flattering to Locallo. He comes off as a political gladhander with a vast ability to rationalize his decisions and dismiss second thoughts or suggestions that the justice system makes mistakes. Public defenders generally fare better; they are described as generally hard workers with far too much work to do. Prosecutors seem primarily to be zealots who appear to truly believe they are accomplishing justice by locking up anyone charged with a crime. All of these portrayals are necessarily incomplete; Bogira chose which cases to discuss and which to ignore, and even though he seems to have spent a lot of time in court during the year he was gathering the foundation for this book, he could not have seen everything and may have missed many cases where Locallo was more genuine or empathetic, or where public defenders were slacking and selling their clients out, or where prosecutors were exercising their vast discretion to ensure that innocent or less culpable people did not receive undeserved punishment. In other words, as complete as this portrait seems to be, one writer, in one year, in one courtroom, could only see and communicate so much.

That said, one of the book’s great strengths is its use of historical research and data from earlier decades to show that, well, the more things seem to change, the more they seem to stay the same in criminal justice.

The fact that I work in the criminal justice system means I’m not the average reader. That said, this book is full of fascinating stories about vivid characters enmeshed in compelling and sometimes life-and-death struggles. The fact that it’s all true only makes it that much better. Highly recommended.

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