Statistics vary, but throughout America, it is believed that between eighty and ninety percent of people arrested choose a plea agreement with prosecutors rather than take their case to trial. Why is this, and what would happen if everyone exercised their constitutional right to a speedy trial by a jury of their peers?
An Inmate’s Fear
When a person is arrested for a crime they enter a zone of fear that has no equal. They risk losing their job, their reputation, their children and most important at that moment, their freedom. They are locked in a jail cell with people they don’t know or feel comfortable around, the food is terrible, they have no privacy and they have lost control of all their personal belongings.
The things they take for granted; the internet, cell phones, privacy when going to the bathroom, our television, our car… all of that disappears in jail. The fear of potential jail or prison time, getting in a fight and getting hurt, and being shunned by their families and friends will motivate them to take extraordinary measures.
Doing time in jail is so frightening to most people, they will do anything to avoid it. Therefore, when their court-appointed public defender approaches them with a ‘plea’, they reach out and grab it, taking the first offer thrown at them in order to escape their hell. But could they get a better deal from the prosecutor? And what would happen if they demanded a trial?
Fast and Speedy Trials
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives everyone the right to a Fast and Speedy Trial by an ‘impartial’ jury. This means that a defendant has the right to a trial within a reasonable period of time that must be decided by a jury of their peers. Some states actually put a number on the definition of speedy.. and 90 days is the norm most places.
In general, the more serious the crime, the more time the prosecution is allowed to prepare their case. Prosecutors are willing to agree to plea agreements for lesser crimes (cases they consider a distraction, but that boost their conviction percentage) so they can focus on their more serious cases, cases that help their public image and careers.
However, these small cases, the vast majority (80-90%) of cases they prosecute, are for minor and insignificant crimes. And these are the ones that never make it to trial as the defendants are willing to ‘take a plea’ giving them short jail terms and probation rather than risk a greater punishment and the embarrassment that a trial would bring.
Demanding a Trial
If everyone arrested demanded their right to a court appointed lawyer (which they are entitled to by the Constitution) and a Speedy Trial by a jury of their peers, rather than taking a plea deal from the prosecution, there is no possible way the court systems in local counties (or the federal system) could handle the volume. Courts are already bogged down as it is now, as arrests are at levels that are unprecedented.
So…What Would Happen if Defendants Demanded a Trial?
Since county courts are already overburdened and operating on a limited budget and a limited time frame due to the defendant’s right to a speedy trial and expensive jail costs, the prosecutors would be forced to drop charges on more than half their cases. In fact, it is very likely that they would have to drop more than 75% of the cases they now handle.
A trial, even for a minor case, can take up to a full day at an absolute minimum. Even before the trial, interviewing and picking a jury from a pool can be another day of work. Then the jury has to be sequestered to decide on guilt, and in many cases, another day to decide a punishment.
Therefore, let’s just assume that a jury trial for each person arrested took 2-3 days. With some counties arresting hundreds of people every day, and a prosecutor’s office with a limited number of lawyers, you can see how quickly the system could get bogged down, both time-wise and financially.
The problem with this theory is that every inmate incarcerated or with a case pending would have to work together to bring the system to a halt, and the likelihood of that happening is unlikely.
To better understand the mind of an inmate when first arrested, go here.