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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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• Whites are more likely to economically afford better legal representation and, therefore, enjoy more vigorous legal defense and advocacy;

• Minorities are more likely to be arrested for certain behaviors than Whites, notwithstanding that Whites and Blacks commit crimes at equivalent rates.

The report illustrated a common complaint among Black defendants and those who advocate for a change in sentencing guidelines by noting that African American neighborhoods are targeted more often for drug enforcement compared to their White counterparts. Therefore, the incident of arrest and conviction of Black persons are ultimately higher because these defendants—many of which are first-time offenders—commonly accept a plea bargain and thus admit guilt. Under sentencing, the report stated, “...once people have a criminal record, they are less likely to escape imprisonment.”

“The focus of the criminal justice system has shifted away from trials and juries and adjudication to a massive system of sentence bargaining that is heavily rigged against the accused,” said William Young, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts in 2004.

In plea bargains, defendants are seldom informed about the underlying effects of pleading to a felony such as losing the right to vote, no access to college loans/aid, job discrimination and if they are non-citizens, the danger of being deported. In some cases, plea bargaining can mean a shorter sentence (assuming the case wasn’t overcharged to begin with). For poor defendants who are not in a position financially to fight charges that may be unfairly leveled against them, the plea bargain may be their only hope for life beyond prison.

Plea bargain rarely explained

Generally, defendants held in pretrial detention will plead guilty faster than those defendants released into the community prior to trial. But too many defendants, Smith said, are enticed into accepting a plea bargain and assume that no jail time is required because the charge—as it was explained to them—does not rise to the level of a felony and they can continue with their life. But that’s not always the case. Given the proliferation of background checks by employers, this effect can be devastating for many. Since the Sept. 11 2001 terror attacks, private security firms are increasingly conducting criminal background checks that are affecting many job seekers. Black and Latino hopefuls may not have a chance of gainful employment if a felony plea is found on their record.

Physical evidence, the number of charges and confessing to a crime during police/prosecutor interrogation can increase the probability of pleading guilty. Smith said many people who have contacted his office have had extra charges leveled against them stemming from something as common as a car accident.

The NAACP office in the Antelope Valley is frequently contacted by persons who say they have been overcharged and forced into plea bargains. “One man had a car accident and a fight ensued,” Smith explained. “He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon—he was outside of his car—but the alleged victim claimed he feared for his life because he thought the man was going to run over him. There’s another case in which a woman was charged with three felonies and refused a plea bargain because she was a Section 8 client and a guilty plea meant she would have to move out of her home. Because she wouldn’t agree to that initial plea bargain, she had an additional 20 felony counts charged against her and ended up serving two months in jail.” Smith said the 20 felony counts leveled against the woman were dismissed after she served her time.