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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Smith and allies are not accusing the bench nor prosecutors of unprofessional behavior in pushing through so many plea bargains, noting that he has sympathy for the [County District Attorney] office that is “terribly overworked and underfunded,” he said.

Plea bargaining and racial profiling are factors contributing to the current overrepresentation of minorities in the judicial system. African Americans are disproportionately subjected to conditions such as racial profiling (e.g. traffic stops) which often lead to searches/seizures that typically yield minor offenses but also lead to jail time rather than probation or rehabilitation. Black defendants are steered more often to plea bargains because, traditionally, they are significantly more disadvantaged financially than Whites at the point of incarceration and can’t pay for an attorney. Also, White defendants before the court are sometimes more likely to benefit from the use of mitigating provisions such as “first-time offender” status.

The Sentencing Project reported in 2006 that more than 90 percent of all cases before the U.S. justice system are settled by plea bargaining rather than exercising the right to trial. The rate of Black felony convictions is overwhelming, the study reported: African Americans constitute 13 percent of all drug users, yet represent 35 percent of arrests, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences.

In 2004, the Constitutional Rights Foundation called for a ban on plea bargaining. Its report cited a U.S. Sentencing Commission study from 2000 that found that 25 percent of White Americans get their sentences reduced via plea bargaining, compared to 18 percent of Blacks and only 12 percent of Latinos.

A 2003 Justice Policy Institute (JPI) study found that Black defendants often receive much harsher treatment and sentencing, perhaps, because of a general perception by the court system that they are dangerous. Minorities convicted of drug offenses, those unable to secure pretrial deals (and release), those with prior criminal records and those who refuse to plead guilty are more likely to be overcharged and forced into a plea bargain. This may be explained by certain new “response techniques” of law enforcement officials to a “perceived threat” that is driven by a heightened threat seen in the majority community that minorities’ higher tendency to commit crime is a threat to social order.

Coercion of guilty pleas

Plea bargains are central to the high rate of Black incarceration. As far back as 1997, Human Rights Watch in its report “Cruel and Unusual” stated: “Many observers of the (United States) criminal justice system are concerned that the highly punitive mandatory sentencing laws in effect coerce guilty pleas and threaten the continuing vitality of the constitutional right to force the state to prove its charges.”

The JPI study found that there are striking differences in the way “alternative sentencing” is applied to African American defendants as opposed to other persons who appear before a judge:

• Whites have better access to high-quality treatment and alternative (complimentary) social services which diverts them away from crime and punishment;

• Criminal records of crime, arrest and incarceration affect Blacks more negatively with respect to employment, access to higher education, capital formation, loan acquisition and mortgage;