Prosecutors Never Favor Legal Reform

The Young TurksThe fine people on The Young Turks discussed prosecutors who are fighting against drug sentence reform. The video is embedded below. I agree with pretty much everything they say. However, they show a shocking lack of understanding about how the criminal justice system works. The group that came out against sentencing reform is The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys. The Turks argue that the group only represents 25% of all the attorneys, and so is probably just a conservative group with an ax to grind. Maybe they are, but that is not at all the issue.

The way our system works, prosecutors have almost all the power. This is largely because of all the laws we have. As anyone who has ever been arrested for a serious crime can tell you, people do not face a single charge. If you take a swing at a cop, you will not be prosecuted for simply assaulting a cop. You will be facing about ten charges. If you decide to go to trial, you will be facing perhaps decades in jail. So most people just plead to the single assault charge and get the maximum penalty for that. Prosecutors love this power.

With minimum mandatory sentences, it is even better for prosecutors. Now if a junkie is found with three bags of dope, he faces perhaps three years for possession along with another ten years for “intent to distribute” and on and on and on. Suddenly, our poor little junkie is looking at life in prison. He pleads and the prosecutor gets more time on the golf course. This is mentioned in the video, but the Turks don’t seem to understand its meaning. David Zlotnick is quoted as saying:

This is a biased letter with an ulterior motive—to make federal prosecutors’ jobs easier. Federal prosecutors should stand for justice and fairness as well as public safety. This letter and this organization’s position are shortsighted and biased and do not represent the views of all prosecutors.

But it isn’t just that it makes their jobs easier. Remember when I wrote about the Monopoly study where subjects who were given unfair advantages in the game came to think they deserved them? The same thing is going on here. The prosecutors believe that the totally unfair system that has benefited them all these years is right and proper. Fundamentally, these prosecutors don’t want to lose power. It has absolutely nothing to do with making the society safer or fairer.

The legal profession is based upon the idea of sophistry where the two sides try to make the best argument regardless of the truth of the matter. But in the justice system, this is wrong. The prosecutor should only argue for cases that he thinks are true. But this is not the way it works. Prosecutors have great incentives to convict as many people as possible. And they are almost never harmed by getting a false conviction—even when they knowingly railroaded a defendant. So very few prosecutors are going to think it is a good idea to take away their power to do what they see as their jobs. It’s an outrage, but sadly one that even the well informed people on The Young Turks don’t understand.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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