Meanwhile, the Washington Post has a piece about innocent people pleading guilty:For decades, lawyers and activists have questioned the constitutionality of our criminal justice system’s most severe punishments. Is lethal injection okay?1 What about a firing squad?2 How about life sentences for pirates3 or drug possessors4 or people who pass rubber checks?5 But we hear remarkably little about what may be the most severe punishment of all: solitary confinement. Lurking in the shadows of the conversation about inhumane punishments are some 100,000 souls who spend 23 hours a day alone in a cell the size of a parking space. In a world where making a rap video can earn you three years in the box,6 we should all be asking more questions about how prisoners get into solitary confinement, what “life” is like once they get there, and how they can get out.The Liman Program’s Time-In-Cell Report begins this important conversation. The Report’s shuddersome findings confirm what I have long suspected: Solitary confinement is just as bad as the death penalty, if not worse.There is a growing consensus that criminal justice reform is desperately needed.7 The difficult question is how best to allocate the scarce resources of lawyers, activists, and academics. I argue here that society should shift some resources and attention away from the death penalty and towards the problem of solitary confinement. If such a shift is not made, death penalty abolitionists may succeed in their campaign only to discover that they have won a Pyrrhic victory. Sending hardened criminals from death row to solitary confinement is no triumph. It merely swaps one type of death for another.
The presumption of innocence helps to combat prejudice and prejudging in the U.S. criminal justice system. But because plea bargains have supplanted trials in our criminal justice system, that presumption does not apply to most cases in the United States.While the drumbeat of criminal justice reform is getting louder, many in the GOP are opposing commonsense measures.
Prejudice against the accused is quite common. Consider your own experience: If you see that a police car has pulled a driver over to the side of a highway, what do you make of the situation? Most people probably think to themselves, “Hmm, that driver was probably caught speeding.” Similarly, if you heard that one of your neighbors had been arrested, you would likely say to yourself, “I wonder what crime he committed.” It is a common reaction to presume that the authorities had a good reason to detain or arrest someone.
To protect the innocent, however, the law demands that incriminating evidence be presented in court. The Constitution says every person accused of a crime has the right to an impartial jury trial. If the jury is persuaded that a person is guilty, then that person can lose his liberty and be punished. That is a sensible procedure for a just system, and it is why Americans have taken pride in our Bill of Rights.
Unfortunately, the system that is described by our school teachers and that Americans see on television and in the movies is now defunct. Jury trials are now rare events in the United States. In fact, about 95 percent of the cases moving through the system will not go to trial. The overwhelming majority of cases will be resolved by plea bargains.