Last weekend, the New York Times published an interesting opinion article. They questioned what would happen if thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people charged with crimes in the United States chose not to plead guilty, instead opting to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial.
When our forefathers drafted our Bill of Rights, they included a provision that states that any person accused of a crime who is facing a jail or prison sentence, is entitled to a trial by jury. This is the Sixth Amendment. However, when it was drafted it was a different time. As the population of the United States has risen through the years so has the crime rate. While state funding for building prisons and incarcerating individuals increases each year, the budget for the court system rarely goes up at all, and in recent years in Florida it has even declined. That means that although people are guaranteed a right to trial in front of a jury by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, realistically there simply aren’t enough courtrooms, enough judges or enough prosecutors to realistically give everyone the trial they are entitled to.
So what does the system do to keep on functioning? The system is designed so that the vast majority of people who are accused of crimes plead guilty. The way this is done, is that individuals are charged with crimes that carry with them harsh penalties and in some cases minimum mandatory sentences. Then, prosecutors will offer enticing plea deals to get a person to give up their right to a jury trial and take the plea. Some people argue that this system can even entice an innocent person to plead guilty. Although it is a natural tendency for a person to believe that he or she would never plead guilty to charges when they did not commit the crime, the reality is quite different. If a person is facing a harsh sentence such as life in prison or a twenty (20) year minimum mandatory sentence for instance, and yet he is offered probation and a free pass out of jail the same day, it is enticing to accept the plea even if innocent.
Take for example the case of Berma Fae Stuart who was reported on in the New York Times article. Ms. Stuart is a single African American mother of two who was arrested when she was thirty (30) years old for drug charges. Ms. Stuart sat in jail in Texas awaiting trial while she had no one to care for her two young children. After spending a month in jail awaiting trial and being offered probation, Ms. Stuart decided to accept the plea deal although she maintained her innocence throughout the process.
However, after her release, Ms. Stuart faced even harsher penalties. As a convicted felon, she was barred from receiving food stamps and she was evicted from the public housing development where she once resided. Since she was then homeless, Ms. Stuart lost her children who were taken away from her and placed in foster care. Had she gone to trial, she may have been exonerated. Or, she may have been convicted and may have faced years in prison in Texas.
The very nature of trial is that it is a gamble. And the fact of the matter is, it is a gamble that many people facing criminal charges do not wish to make. Certainly, if hundreds of thousands of those accused of crimes opted to take their case to trial by jury, the justice system would be a stand still. The court system simply does not have the resources to try all of those individuals, especially if they chose to have a speedy trial. And in the State of Florida, the law states that a person is entitled to a speedy trial, which Florida defines as ninety (90) days from the date of arrest. If a person is not tried within that brief window, and he has not waived his right to a speedy trial, then he is forever barred from being prosecuted for that charge.
But asking thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people to take a huge risk by asserting their right to trial, is simply unrealistic. As a result, we are left with the justice system that we have. A justice system where sometimes the innocent plead guilty, and sometimes those that deserve harsh sentences are given great breaks, just because the prosecutor doesn’t have the time to take the case to trial. If that person is facing life in prison, or a twenty (20) year minimum mandatory sentence, and is offered probation, and yet state funding for incarceration