The New York Times has an important article on the effects of years and years of increasingly harsh sentencing laws and the resulting power shift in favor of prosecutors – at both state and federal levels – often at the expense not only of alleged criminals but also judges and overburdened prison systems. The main point of the piece is how prosecutors can use the threat of additional charges and aggravating factors – which can carry mandatory minimums – to bully defendants into plea deals. Obviously, there are good aspects to plea deals, especially given the budget problems of state court systems. But experts worry that the “trial penalty” is too coercive and “is used to punish defendants for exercising their right to trial.”
One judge, U.S. District Judge John Kane in Denver, believes that prosecutors are now more powerful than judges. In 1977, when Kane joined the federal bench, the plea to trial verdicts ratio was four to one, and now it’s 32 to one. Kane also noted that there is a lack of data, because it is impossible to know how many times a mandatory sentence is used to obtain a plea deal.