An Overlooked Key to Reversing Mass Incarceration: Reforming the Law to Reduce Prosecutorial Power in Plea Bargaining
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The need to “do something” about mass incarceration is now widely recognized. When President Obama announced plans to reform federal criminal legislation, he focused on the need to change how we handle non-violent drug offenders and parole violators. Previously, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced policies to make federal prosecutors “smart on crime.” These changes reflect, as President Obama noted, the increasing bipartisan consensus on the need for reform and the need to reduce our incarceration rates. However, proposals about what to reform, such as President Obama’s, tend to focus on some parts of criminal sentencing and on prosecutorial behavior as stand-alone issues. These reform suggestions do not consider the fact that ninety-four to ninety-seven percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains and how the use of this process influences incarceration rates. Prosecutors hold extraordinary power in the criminal justice system. They not only decide what cases get filed, they also decide what charges and enhancements are added, and whether there will be a plea offer. The structure of our criminal justice system, at both the state and federal level, strengthens prosecutorial power and create a plea bargaining environment with extreme power imbalances. Prosecutors use this power to put pressure on defendants to accept plea deals, which contribute to the high incarceration rates in the United States. Therefore, any reform intended to make a meaningful reduction in incarceration rates should recognize the power that prosecutors hold and include reform aimed at changing this underlying structure. As is well documented, the United States has high incarceration rates and imprisons more people than any nation in the world. African American and Latino communities suffer even higher incarceration rates. Our incarceration rates increased dramatically in the 1980s and into the 1990s. Some commentators identify the “war on drugs” as a major contributor to increasing incarceration rates during this period. Others suggest that the increase is due to a number of factors including changes in criminal codes that increased potential penalties for crimes across the board, not only for drug crimes. One scholar, John F. Pfaff, concludes that the single biggest reason for increased incarceration rates since 1990 is not an increase in arrests, or harsher sentencing, or the drug war, but instead is an increase in the percentage of felony filings per arrest. Pfaff concludes that the reason there are more filings is because prosecutors are filing a higher percentage of cases and therefore prosecutors are the predominate reason for mass incarceration. This article will begin by briefly describing how plea bargaining works and the often coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining that contributes to mass incarceration. This article will then discuss Pfaff’s conclusions, based on his empirical studies, that prosecutors are the key reason for mass incarceration. Building on Pfaff’s conclusions on the key role prosecutors play in mass incarceration, this article will discuss how the current structure of both state and federal codes reinforce prosecutorial power, particularly in the plea bargaining process. This article will then discuss two proposals for legislative reform that could decrease the coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining. First, this article will recommend revising how crimes are defined, reducing the number of crimes that can be charged as both misdemeanors and felonies and reducing some felonies to misdemeanors. Second, this article will recommend reducing potential punishment ranges by eliminating mandatory minimums for most crimes and for enhancements. Legislative change alone will not reverse mass incarceration, but targeted legislative reform could help to change the overly coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining. This effort can help to change the prosecutorial culture that surrounds plea bargaining and contribute to reducing incarceration rates.
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