“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
I’m gonna skip right over the numerous ways both the Bush and Obama administration have violated this one since 9/11, since that horse has already been beaten into the ground by roughly everybody (although I do find it interesting that the noise level about it seems to have dropped off since roughly January 20, 2009). The fact is there are still serious issues in our country that have come about due to policy decisions that are tangential to this amendment, some of which are only obvious after the fact due to the law of unintended consequences.
First we have the issue of a speedy trial. This is by definition a slippery one, since what constitutes a “speedy” trial is a qualitative measure, not a quantitative one. Is a week to prepare a defense long enough? How about five years? How long is too long? Either way you have issues, but it doesn’t much matter, because the justice system is getting more and more crowded each day. A lot of this can be attributed to the growth in nonviolent offenders. Much of this can be attributed to the War on Drugs (yes, I’m back on that old tune), but there is also the criminalization of other activity to consider as well.
As The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law so adeptly shows, there has been a large increase over time in the number and scope of laws that do not require mens rea, or an accompanying mental element to match the actual act of committing a crime. I can’t go into the details of overcriminalization nearly as well as The Illustrated Guide does, so I highly recommend visiting that link; it’s highly informative, very entertaining, and a little scary. It covers both regulatory agencies that pass regulations that include criminal as well as civil penalties for violations, as well as my personal favorite, politicians who legislate personal behavior (speaking of which, can someone in NYC run to 7-11 and grab me a Big Gulp, a doughnut, and a pack of smokes?)
The upshot of all of this is that we end up with a criminal justice system that is bogged down with defendants, many of whom can’t afford an attorney. Let’s face it, if you could afford an attorney, chances are pretty good you wouldn’t have gotten caught in the first place, because you would have had someone else doing the dirty work for you (it takes a lot to bring down a Bernie Madoff, not so much to bring down a Joe Shmoe). This brings us to the Public Defender’s office. Now before you think I’m about to tear into yet another government agency just trying to do their job, I’m not. I actually have a lot of respect for these people. The don’t get paid much, they have huge case loads, and they work ridiculous hours, usually trying to defend people who for the most part don’t stand a chance. That’s not to say most of their clients are guilty, but you would have a hard time convincing me that more money doesn’t buy better expert testimony, better access to research tools, more paralegals to work your case, and so on. The fact is Justice may be blind, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a palm just waiting to be greased.
So what’s an attorney to do? With a huge case load, a small chance of winning in most cases, and huge mandatory sentences having been imposed by ill-considered legislation in the past, there’s only one out: focus on the ones you can save and get the best deal you can for everyone else. That’s why plea bargains have become so popular. There are just a few problems with that.
Number one, they only work if you have something to trade. Remember that regulatory criminalization I mentioned earlier? Unless there’s someone higher up the food chain you can point a finger at (Bernie Madoff), you’re the guy stuck holding the bag. Or if you just happened to be picking up a buddy and had no idea he was holding. Either way, you’re outta luck.
Number two, plea bargains are a poor substitute for justice. With those previously mentioned harsh sentences, all the DA has to do is get an indictment for a particularly nasty crime (like say intent to distribute, even if you had no such intent), and you’re facing twenty years. Suddenly a plea bargain for a year in jail sounds like a sweet deal indeed, even if you think you have a fair chance of beating the case, just because the cost of losing is so high. That’s a real-life application of game theory, one of the most famous examples of which is (ironically) the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Third, and maybe this is just me, it smacks of a witch hunt. Whether it’s Salem 1692 or Washington D.C. 1954, our country doesn’t have a very good track record with this sort of thing. Turning people against each other in order to avoid further punishment may be a time-honored tactic, and it has proven to be efficacious, but it is not without its dangers. It should be used sparingly, as a scalpel and not a bludgeon.