Waivers are a common but largely hidden element of plea bargains — which, in many federal cases, aren’t really bargains because the power of prosecutors is often so much greater than that of the defendants or their lawyers. The process is closer to coercion. Prosecutors regularly “overcharge” defendants with a more serious crime than what actually occurred. The defendants must then choose between the risk of being found guilty at trial and getting a longer sentence than the alleged crime would warrant or a guilty plea in exchange for a lighter sentence. All but a tiny minority of defendants take the plea as the price of avoiding the crapshoot of a trial.
Some standard parts of waivers are outrageous, keeping defendants from appealing even if they become convinced that they received inadequate counsel to accept a defective plea agreement where the sentence was not lighter or where the prosecutor wrongly withheld evidence. Any defense lawyer or prosecutor who asks a defendant to sign a waiver ruling out appeals on those grounds is protecting himself.
An important element of justice is missing even when the defendant and the government believe a plea bargain is fair and when an appeal waiver is narrow so the defendant can appeal about certain specified issues. Congress gave appeals courts the power to review federal sentences to ensure the government applies the law reasonably and consistently. Without an appeals court’s policing, the odds go up that prosecutors will do neither. Our system of pleas then looks more like a system of railroading.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
"Our system of pleas then looks more like a system of railroading."
That's the NY Times op-ed discussing appellate waivers, one of the dirty little secrets of the federal criminal justice system. Here's more: