Glenn Reynolds not only runs the indispensable Instapundit website, he is also a distinguished law professor at the University of Tennessee and writes a regular column for USA Today. Today’s column is an important one, “Our Criminal Justice System Has Become a Crime.”
The problem with the system is that prosecutors have acquired far too much power and face few consequences for bad behavior. Prosecutorial discretion—deciding whom to go after and whom to ignore—is an open invitation to corruption. And this corruption can have consequences beyond the individuals involved. Had Senator Ted Stevens not been convicted a week before he narrowly lost reelection in 2008 in a trial that involved “gross prosecutorial misconduct,” he undoubtedly would have been reelected and the Democrats would not have had the sixty votes in the Senate they needed to ram ObamaCare through.
Criminal statutes have proliferated to such an extent that the federal government doesn’t even know how many federal criminal statutes there are. People break laws all the time without knowing it. So a prosecutor investigating an individual can often find evidence of dozens, even hundreds, of “crimes” and charge the individual with them. And usually the case never goes to trial. Instead the person charged is offered a plea bargain and has no real option but to take it.
As Reynolds points out, while a criminal trial positively bristles with due process—especially the jury’s power to determine guilt—the pretrial process has little due process. Prosecutors decide whom to investigate and what charges to file. Grand juries seldom refuse to indict.
Reynolds has solutions:
First, prosecutors should have “skin in the game” — if someone’s charged with 100 crimes but convicted of only one, the state should have to pay 99% of his legal fees. This would discourage overcharging. (So would judicial oversight, but we’ve seen little enough of that.) Second, plea-bargain offers should be disclosed at trial, so that judges and juries can understand just how serious the state really thinks the offense is. Empowering juries and grand juries (a standard joke is that any competent prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich) would also provide more supervision. And finally, I think that prosecutors should be stripped of their absolute immunity to suit — an immunity created by judicial activism, not by statute — and should be subject to civil damages for misconduct such as withholding evidence.
As Reynolds likes to say, read the whole thing. This problem needs much more attention.