Blacks overcharged, forced more often into plea bargains

Residents decry Antelope Valley’s ‘Hanging Courthouse’

Merdies Hayes | 6/20/2014, midnight
Minority defendants in the Antelope Valley are being overcharged and forced to agree to plea bargains at a much higher ...
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Minority defendants in the Antelope Valley are being overcharged and forced to agree to plea bargains at a much higher rate than at any regional court in Los Angeles County. According to the Antelope Valley branch of the NAACP, this practice of bypassing the Sixth Amendment has become typical of judicial proceedings at the court which has gained infamy as the “Antelope Valley Hanging Courthouse.”

In a plea bargain, the prosecutor usually confers with the defense attorney to offer a reduced prison sentence, if the defendant agrees to waive his/her right to trial and admit guilt in a summary proceeding before a judge. In Superior Court, both lawyers work for the local District Attorney office.

From the government’s perspective, plea bargaining is less expensive and less time consuming than a jury trial. Also, by eliminating the jury, prosecutors and judges have more influence over case outcomes. In the eyes of the defendant, plea bargaining often extorts a guilty plea. When the prosecution allegedly has a “witness” (who may be willing to lie), and the defense attorney urges the person to take a one-year-sentence rather than risk a 10-year ruling, the decision of the defendant becomes much harder.

In most scenarios, a prosecutor has a good idea of what he/she can reasonably expect a jury to convict a defendant of, based on the evidence. But when the evidence is limited, a prosecutor may not believe that a jury will convict the defendant of any charges. With the responsibility of obtaining a conviction, the prosecutor may decide to bring several additional charges against the defendant. This process can function as a “threat” against the defendant to remind the person that they are in “big trouble.” If the defendant buys into this threat, the prosecution now has additional bargaining chips. Therefore, if the defendant is facing a slew of charges, he/she can be given the false impression that the best chance to face the least punishment would be to plead guilty to one charge in exchange for the others being dismissed. Basically, overcharging increases the power/influence the prosecution has in plea bargaining.

Trouble is, too many persons at the Antelope Valley Courthouse are being allegedly pushed into the option of a plea bargain, and a good number of those defendants have no prior record. They are being routinely charged with far more than prosecutors can prove and that can put maximum pressure on the person to agree to a plea. The Antelope Valley Courthouse secures a stunning 85 to 95 percent rate of convictions by way of plea bargains; this judicial practice is common nationwide among minority defendants.

Abandoning Sixth Amendment

Where does the Sixth Amendment (“right to a speedy trial”) figure in this controversy? That’s what Rev. V. Jesse Smith, president of the Antelope Valley NAACP, would like to know. “The time has come that we as a community stand up with one united voice and speak out against this injustice,” Smith said last weekend at a march and rally in front of the courthouse. “Many of the defendants don’t understand the plea bargain arrangement and they are not informed ahead of time of the ramifications. Jail time is their pressing concern. We must challenge these overcharges; often there are no real facts to support a plea bargain.”