MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Why Trials Are Better Than Plea Bargains | Cato at Liberty Blog

Posted by M. C. on November 20, 2021

But at least that disagreement will be an informed one based on the evidence presented in a public jury trial, just as the Founders intended. We are deprived of that opportunity for civic engagement every time a case is resolved through a guilty plea instead of the public jury trial that the Constitution wisely provides. The time is long overdue for us to take a fresh look at our decision to pursue efficiency in the adjudication of criminal charges through coercive plea bargaining to the exclusion of every other constitutional value.

https://www.cato.org/blog/why-trials-are-better-plea-bargains

By Clark Neily

Surprising almost no one, the jury in the Kyle Rittenhouse prosecution returned a verdict of not guilty on all charges, including intentional and reckless homicide. The verdict may be unsurprising given how the trial unfolded, with a singularly unimpressive prosecution team making one blunder after another and a trial judge who some perceived to be unduly favorable to the defense, but it will nevertheless strike many people as inappropriate and even unjust in light of all the circumstances.

But as I argue in a piece published in the Washington Examiner hours before the verdict came down, the most important—and unusual—thing about the Rittenhouse case was the fact that it went to trial at all. That’s unusual because more than 95 percent of criminal convictions in our system are the product not of constitutionally prescribed jury trials, but instead of an ad hoc, extra‐​constitutional, and often jaw‐​droppingly coercive process that we refer to euphemistically as “plea bargaining.” As explained in the Examiner piece, plea bargaining has been an absolute train wreck of a policy that regularly produces false convictions and puts the government in the historically squalid and abuse‐​prone role of inducing people to condemn themselves.

Given the sheer amount of attention they devoted to trial by jury (among other things, it’s the only right mentioned both in the body of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights), the Framers’ intent to put citizen participation at the very heart of the administration of criminal justice is unmistakable. It was also incredibly wise because allowing government actors (including particularly judges and prosecutors) to dictate the results of criminal prosecutions represents a short and slippery slope to tyranny. Indeed, in a piece for Cato’s Policy Report, I compared the effect that the near‐​total elimination of jury trials has had on the criminal justice system to the effect that the extinction of a keystone species like honeybees would have on the ecosystem: complete and utter disaster.

In sum, reasonable people can and will disagree about whether Kyle Rittenhouse was guilty or innocent. But at least that disagreement will be an informed one based on the evidence presented in a public jury trial, just as the Founders intended. We are deprived of that opportunity for civic engagement every time a case is resolved through a guilty plea instead of the public jury trial that the Constitution wisely provides. The time is long overdue for us to take a fresh look at our decision to pursue efficiency in the adjudication of criminal charges through coercive plea bargaining to the exclusion of every other constitutional value.

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