Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Should judges be able to reject plea deals?

Should judges be able to reject plea deals?  That's the question raised in this case where "a federal judge in West Virginia has rejected a plea deal for a man accused of dealing heroin and fentanyl, arguing that 'the secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime.'" From the Washington Post:

In his 28-page ruling, the district judge for the southern district of West Virginia, Joseph R. Goodwin, notes the severity of the opiate epidemic in West Virginia, calling the state “ground zero” in a crisis that amounts to “a cancer that has grown and metastasized in the body politic of the United States.”
He argues that given this context, “the bright light of the jury trial deters crime, enhances respect for the law, educates the public, and reinforces their sense of safety much more than a contract entered into in the shadows of a private meeting in the prosecutor’s office.”
The judge makes a compelling case about needing more trials:
Plea bargains have become so widespread in part because of a perception that they place a lighter load on an overburdened criminal justice system.

But Goodwin argues that this perception is outdated. The judge draws on federal data sources to illustrate that federal criminal trials have fallen precipitously even as the number of U.S. attorneys has grown dramatically.

“In [fiscal year] 1973,” he writes, “each federal prosecutor handled over eight criminal trials on average. By [fiscal year] 2016, the average number of criminal trials handled by each federal prosecutor plummeted to 0.29 trials.”
Even though the system desperately needs more trials, it strikes me as wrong and dangerous to reject plea deals on an individual basis to accomplish this goal.  Rejecting plea deals on an individual basis will unfairly harm particular defendants, especially if that defendant will get a higher sentence should he lose the trial.

So, I think there are lots of ways judges can accomplish more trials.  For example, give more variances after trial.  Explain to defendants that there will not be a trial tax for going to trial.  Hold prosecutors' feet to the fire for discovery and other violations so that they don't think that they can get away with everything.  Enforce violations by excluding evidence.  Appellate courts need to have a more limited view of harmless error in the few cases that do go to trial.  There's a lot more to be said here.

Yes, more trials, but not this way.


Anonymous said...

No, judges shouldn't be able to reject plea deals unless there is something manifestly unjust about the deal (the prosecutor is the defendant's brother-in-law, or maybe investigators tell the judge that there is a likelihood that the prosecutor has been bought or threatened).

A plea deal is a deal between litigants. If the litigants don't want to litigate anymore and they have found a resolution to their dispute, fine.

Anonymous said...

Wrong. This is not civil court. This is the state depriving a citizen of his liberty. While in most cases, a judge should probably go along with the agreed disposition in case, an Article III judge should have the authority to not accept a disposition she views as unjust.

Anonymous said...

Has a judge ever rejected a plea agreement for being too harsh?