The time has come for the criminal defense community to rethink its well-rehearsed response to the following question:
What would happen if every defendant who wanted a trial got one?
Michelle Alexander at the New York Times posed this question in 2012…or more accurately, Ms. Alexander interviewed a former defendant named Susan Burton, and it was Ms. Burton who posed this question. Ms. Burton had served multiple jail terms for drug related offenses. Each time, she got out by accepting the prosecuting attorney’s plea bargain. Each time she got out after serving the sentence she agreed to serve, the state released her back into the under-served, over-policed neighborhood from whence she came. Her status as a convicted felon barred her from job and housing options, and her freedom lasted only as long as it took for the police to find another reason to drag her back in.
Ms. Burton’s story is too common. The criminal court system in the United States jails a larger fraction of its citizens than does any other system in the world. The numbers of imprisoned African American men are the most shocking and shameful; the United States jails more people than were jailed in the Soviet Union during the heyday of Stalinism, and the United States jails a greater percent of its African American men than the percent of Soviet citizens held in the gulag.
Ms. Burton’s question strikes the beast in its one weak spot; the people who promote this mass brutality don’t want it badly enough to pay for it.
Before the federal courts intervened, California’s prisons were stuffed to 175% of their designed capacity. The state later passed several laws designed to reduce the swelling: California’s infamous Three Strikes law now only applies to those whose “third strike” is serious or violent, prisoners can serve their time for property and drug crimes in local jails instead of state prisons, and simple possession of any drug is now a misdemeanor. These reforms came not because California suddenly realized that narcotics had long since won the War on Drugs or that all life was too valuable to take from someone for just any felony; they came because California had neither the money to build more prisons nor the stomach to raise taxes for that purpose..
California’s death penalty will likely share the same fate; Judge Cormac Carney ruled in 2014 that California’s death penalty was unconstitutional because the state did not provide enough funds to hire competent defense counsel who would “exhaust” all of the appellate options for the condemned so that he could be executed. There were no appeals to the inherent worth of every human life, even ones who have taken other lives from us, and California was not overcome with the shame that should come from being among the last regimes in the industrialized world that practices capital punishment. California still wants to kill people, just not enough to pay for the due process that must come beforehand.
At the trial court level, more than 90% of all criminal cases resolve by plea bargain and not by trial. As Ms. Burton pointed out: if every defendant demanded a speedy trial, the courts would collapse under the weight of all those rights happening at once. Cases would be dismissed for lack of court resources and the regime of mass incarceration would become too expensive for the courts to bear. So what would happen if every defendant who wanted a trial received one?
I posed this question on social media (on Twitter @normdeguerreesq): if bringing the system to its knees is in our clients’ best interest, why aren’t we doing it? This got a little bit of attention, but the response makes me think that the question wasn’t interpreted the way I had intended. Mark Draughn at Windy Pundit and Mark Bennett at Defending People wrote answers to a slightly different question: why don’t we just take every case to trial so that the system buckles under the pressure? Both writers responded with the same answer that every young public defender hears from her supervisor when she daydreams aloud about using her massive stack of case files to bring the system to its knees by trying every case.
Both Mr. Draughn and Mr. Bennett seem to interpret my tweets as though I had suggested that every defendant should choose to go to jury trial. Such a tactic would most certainly be unethical if recommended to all defendants regardless of their individual situations. Ethically, a lawyer is bound to pursue the best interests of each individual client and not her clients as a population. There are some philosophical discussions to be had about whether or not the interests of the many would actually benefit the interests of the few, but this is not a conversation for boots-on-the-ground lawyers like myself and it is most certainly not a call to action I advocate. The defendants who will be hurt with a stiffer sentence after trial should be encouraged to plea, as should those who – for whatever reason – are being offered a sweet deal by the DA. I use my experience as a PD to advise my clients whether or not a deal is worth taking.
However, I am not asking whether we should encourage every defendant to go to trial. I am asking, what would happen if every defendant who wants a trial got one? The difference between these two questions is subtle but important.
To answer this question, the lawyer must accept that being a defendant’s attorney entails being his voice of reason behind closed doors and the voice of his client’s best interest in the courtroom. Despite the histories of poor choices that often land a client’s file on our desks, the decision of whether she wants a trial is hers and hers alone, and that choice must be respected so long as the lawyer has shared his honest, candid professional opinion about the merits of any plea deal and the risks of going to trial. If there is a concern regarding client’s competence to stand trial, that decision is referred to medical doctors and judges. So long as my client is competent, as her lawyer, I treat her that way.
Too many lawyers can’t bring themselves to honor a client’s decision with which they disagree. I have heard public defenders and private lawyers yell at their clients in the courthouse hallways and berate them for not accepting their plea bargains. These lawyers win their guilty pleas, but not because the plea bargain was that much better than the likely post-trial sentence and certainly not because the client has finally accepted his lawyer’s wisdom. These clients still want a trial but no longer believe that their lawyers will actually fight for them. It is this situation I am speaking to.
For every client who wants a trial to get one, the defense bar will have to remind themselves that their clients are the ultimate masters of their own fates. The attorneys who fear trial for whatever reason will have to grow a spine and polish their skills or otherwise find a new line of work. The charred and crispy public defenders who have been doing their jobs for too long to try cases will need to step aside, take their pensions, and make room for new blood.
Finally, and most importantly, we must remind ourselves that Constitutional rights have value, and they should not be surrendered unless the accused is being offered something of comparable value. We need to remind ourselves this when we are tempted to tell a client to plea simply because he is guilty. A client’s guilt is largely irrelevant to whether a plea bargain is in his best interest; what matters is whether the state can prove it and whether the proposed plea is lower than the likely post-trial outcome. If the answer to either question is “no,” then the client’s case should be tried.
Frankly, many lawyers need to recalibrate their sense of whether a plea bargain is actually worth taking. Ms. Alexander’s article has a particularly vivid example of a plea bargain that probably looked more attractive than a trial…at first:
Take the case of Erma Faye Stewart, a single African-American mother of two who was arrested at age 30 in a drug sweep in Hearne, Tex., in 2000. In jail, with no one to care for her two young children, she began to panic. Though she maintained her innocence, her court-appointed lawyer told her to plead guilty, since the prosecutor offered probation. Ms. Stewart spent a month in jail, and then relented to a plea. She was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Then her real punishment began: upon her release, Ms. Stewart was saddled with a felony record; she was destitute, barred from food stamps and evicted from public housing. Once they were homeless, Ms. Stewart’s children were taken away and placed in foster care. In the end, she lost everything even though she took the deal.
Too many lawyers toss aside their client’s misgivings about their plea bargains. “Yet another example of my client’s bad decision making,” they may tell themselves. These lawyers need to remember that unlike their clients, they themselves have never had to live with the consequences of a plea bargain. Probation is no “bargain” if the client cannot or will not jump through the many hoops that come with it. A plea for a short prison term might end up doubling or tripling the client’s next prison term; lawyers may be selling a life sentence on an installment plan. Millions of defendants and their lawyers continue to cooperate with mass incarceration by surrendering their rights, but this amiable cooperation has lead to record numbers of people serving record numbers of years in prison. This tells me that most defense lawyers have been very, very wrong about whether plea bargains are worth taking.
As Ms. Alexander’s article points out, not every defendant needs to go to trial for sparks and flames to fly from the joints of the mass incarceration machine; I believe that the system is so underfunded that defense lawyers could collapse it simply by providing their clients the information and confidence to make their own informed choice and then honoring that choice. What could possibly be controversial or unethical about that?
Many of my peers continue to wring their hands and fret at the idea of making social change through individual representation. “If the police are running amok and if the laws are unjust, then they must be reformed and rebuilt,” these lawyers might say. These lawyers, like Cicero in the days of the old Roman republic, believe that appeals to mercy, decency, and reason will bring out the best in their fellow citizens; justice and reform are just one long dialogue away. But I believe that every institution works they way it does because someone benefits from the status quo, and that someone is most likely in power and will resist any efforts at change. Stabbing the monster in its one weak spot and starving it of resources remains the best tactic; this is why generations of new public defenders continue to ask, what would happen if every client who wanted a trial got one?