President Trump has signed into law, Congress having passed by wide margins, the First Step Act, which will make substantial changes to incarceration practices at the federal level and lesser but still significant changes to sentencing practices. Joe Luppino-Esposito of the Due Process Institute responds to five criticisms that some conservatives have leveled against the bill in its later stages. Jonathan Blanks has more. Families Against Mandatory Minimums has a FAQ. And Caleb Brown interviews Shon Hopwood about the law for the Cato Daily Podcast.
This fall the Cato Institute held a policy forum on plea bargaining featuring Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice at Cato, Scott Hechinger of Brooklyn Defender Services, Bonnie Hoffman of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Somil Trivedi of the ACLU. Description:
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has observed that “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”
Although nowhere mentioned in the text of the Constitution, plea bargaining has become the default mechanism for resolving criminal charges in the United States. Indeed, some 95 percent of criminal convictions today are obtained through plea bargains, which raises a number of serious concerns, including why so few people choose to exercise their hallowed and hard-won right to a jury trial. When one considers the many tools available to prosecutors to encourage defendants to accept plea offers, together with the incentive to resolve as many cases as efficiently as possible, one cannot help but ask how many plea agreements are truly voluntary and how many are the result of irresistible coercion. Are there constitutional or ethical limits on coercive plea bargaining, and if so, are they being properly enforced? And what should we make of an institution that has practically eliminated the criminal jury trial and with it the Framers’ painstaking efforts to ensure citizen participation in the administration of justice?
Urged by the U.S., Canada recently arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. “Meng was traveling in Canada, switching planes using a Chinese passport, when she was taken into custody.” For Tyler Cowen, the “procedural normality of the arrest is precisely what scares me. There are so many international laws, and so many are complex or poorly defined, and there are a couple hundred countries in the world. Arguably most multinational corporations are breaking some law in some manner or another, and thus their senior executives are liable to arrest. If I were a top U.S. tech company executive, I would be reluctant to travel to China right now, for fear of retaliation.” [Bloomberg] See also the FIFA (soccer) controversy, 2015, and related: our series of 2006 posts about the arrest of traveling British executives on charges of remotely violating U.S. online gambling laws.
- Sorry, Denver cops, but you can’t keep a journalist from photographing an arrest on the street by telling her she’s violating the health-privacy law HIPAA [Alex Burness, Colorado Independent on handcuffing of editor Susan Greene]
- Conor Friedersdorf interviews Scott Greenfield, criminal defense blogger and longtime friend of this blog, at the Atlantic;
- Claim in new article: “extremely broad criminal statutes, no less than vague and ambiguous criminal statutes, are constitutionally problematic for depriving ordinary people of ‘fair notice’ about how the legal system actually works” [Kiel Brennan-Marquez guest series at Volokh Conspiracy: first, second, third]
- “We Cannot Avoid the Ugly Tradeoffs of Bail Reform” [Alex Tabarrok; Scott Greenfield] New York should learn from Maryland on risks of unintended consequences [New York Post, and thanks for mention] And a Cato Daily Podcast on bail reform with Daniel Dew of the Buckeye Institute and Caleb Brown;
- In Little Rock and elsewhere, police use of criminal informants creates disturbing incentives that can challenge both probity and accountability [Jonathan Blanks, Cato on Radley Balko account of Roderick Talley raid episode]
- Call to scrap juries in UK rape trials (because they acquit too often) is met with criticism [Matthew Scott, Spectator]
President Donald Trump’s backing of a version of the First Step Act is a big deal. Among noteworthy features: retrospective relief on some overlong sentences currently being served. In this new Cato Podcast, Caleb Brown interviews Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
From notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, slain in prison earlier this month, some career advice for students: “If You Want To Make Crime Pay, Go To Law School” [Paul Caron/TaxProf]
- Antitrust legislation once targeted the unstoppable rise of chain stores A&P and Sears, both now bankrupt [my new Cato post, quoting Joe Nocera, Bloomberg (“The next time you hear somebody say that the dominance of Walmart or Amazon or Facebook can never end, think about Sears. It can — and it probably will.”)]
- When you wish upon a suit: visitor grabs Disney cast member and screams at her after she asks him to move out of parade route, later pleads no contest to disorderly conduct, now wants $15,000 [Gabrielle Russon, Orlando Sentinel]
- Tomorrow (Thurs.) at noon Eastern, watch a Cato panel on “Coercive Plea Bargaining” with Scott Hechinger of Brooklyn Defender Services, Bonnie Hoffman of the NACDL, and Somil Trivedi of the ACLU, moderated by Cato’s Clark Neily. Could you resist taking a plea bargain if faced with a false accusation? [Marc John Randazza, ABA Journal]
- “I am a Democrat. But this may be the dumbest thing I have seen…. the Speech or Debate Clause makes about as clear as anything in the Constitution that a court cannot enjoin legislative officials from taking a fundamental legislative action such as a vote.” [Howard Wasserman on suit by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) asking court to, among other things, order delay of Senate vote on Kavanaugh nomination]
- An ideological screen for CLE? Following demands from tribal attorneys, Minnesota bar authorities order shelving of continuing legal education class on Indian Child Welfare Act developments taught by attorney Mark Fiddler, who often handles ICWA cases on side adverse to tribes [Timothy Sandefur]
- Left-leaning Florida Supreme Court nixes plan to let incumbent Gov. Rick Scott fill vacancies, entrenching its leftward lean for a while at least depending on outcome of governor’s race [Spectrum News 9]
“What a wild story: a prisoner serving 39 years to life started making drawings of golf courses. The drawings made their way to Golf Digest, which wrote about him, then realized his conviction was sketchy, then investigated, and now he’s free.” [Tom Gara on Max Adler, Golf Digest]
The article quotes one of Valentino Dixon’s pro bono lawyers: “It’s embarrassing for the legal system that for a long time the best presentation of the investigation was from a golf magazine.”
Cato held a conference on plea bargaining last month:
Today, more than 95 percent of criminal convictions in the United States are obtained through plea bargains. As the Supreme Court observed in 2012, “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Compared with jury trials, plea bargains are efficient and inexpensive, and they free up resources that might otherwise be devoted to securing convictions in cases where the defendant’s guilt is not seriously in doubt.
But plea bargaining has a dark side as well. Given the imbalance of resources between prosecutors and most defendants, together with the array of tools that prosecutors can bring to bear in any given case, such as mandatory minimum sentences, charge-stacking, and witness inducements, it is fair to ask how many guilty pleas are truly voluntary. A growing body of evidence suggests that false confessions may not be nearly as rare as we would hope, and indeed the specter of coercion casts a shadow over the entire plea-bargaining process.
The panel featured the Hon. Joseph Goodwin, a federal judge in West Virginia who has announced that he would no longer accept plea bargains except when there are truly extenuating, case-specific circumstances; New York City criminal defense attorney and popular law blogger Scott Greenfield, and University of Illinois law Prof. Suja Thomas, with Cato’s Clark Neily moderating. You can watch or download it here.
“For roughly 200 years, trial transcripts were popular, if not the favorite, reading material in the English-speaking world — especially in Britain.” Theodore Dalrymple recounts high points from “the 83 volumes of Notable British Trials, which are as complete a compendium of human nature as has ever appeared.” [City Journal]