Many criminal law practitioners believe the criminal justice system is broken. Most believe the reason it is broken is because the plea-bargaining system is broken. Federal Judge Jed Rakoff offered his own insight in a New York Daily News piece that was released today. Judge Rakoff basically asserts that the presence of mandatory minimum sentences has shifted the balance so far to the prosecution side, that just about everybody who is accused of a federal crime elects to plead guilty to a lesser charge instead of choosing to fight the case. Therefore, the actual evidence of guilt in a case never sees the light of day because everybody pleads guilty. This leads to a prison population that is filled with innocent people. To the non-criminal law practitioner it seems like that can’t possibly be true. Unfortunately it is.
The framers of the United States Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights went out of their way to create a legal system that was fair to the criminally accused. They created amendments that not only protected people against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, but they also created rights which insured that if accused of a crime, a person has the right to have a lawyer, has the right to confront witnesses against him in open court, has the right to be free from being compelled to testify, has the right to a speedy trial, etc. The framers must have concluded that no innocent person would ever go to jail with all these checks on the government. Unfortunately, these rights have been systematically eradicated due to the enactment of harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Here is why.