Had a very interesting conversation with a relatively new prosecutor yesterday. We were discussing a case on the trial docket and he was suggesting my client consider a pretrial intervention. I told him I had some questions about the legitimacy of the stop that ended in my client's arrest. He told me he thought the stop was okay and that, should my client be convicted, that she would get a longer sentence than the 12 months she'd be in the pretrial diversion program.
Then he told me that they (and I don't know if he was referring just to the prosecutors or if he was including the judge in this) wanted longer sentences on convictions than what were being offered on plea deals. He said that otherwise there would be no incentive for defendants to plead. Now the conversation was getting interesting. I threw out a casual warning that he might not want to say anymore on the subject.
What he told me, without realizing it, is that the Harris County District Attorney's Office has a policy to discourage defendants from exercising their right to a jury trial. We all know that prosecutors do this -- the "trial tax" is regularly invoked during the punishment phase of the trial. But I've never had anyone tell me that people sat down and had formal discussions about it.
Now let's look at this revelation in a bit more detail. In just about every misdemeanor case, the prosecutor handling the case writes an offer down on the case file. And the offers are fairly standard and rarely come as a surprise. The only variations occur when there is some aggravating factor or prior conviction. On a second DWI the initial offer is generally the same as the maximum punishment the defendant can receive -- therefore giving the defendant no reason to consider the plea.
But here's the problem. A prosecutor has an ethical duty to see that "justice is done." But is justice being served when a defendant is punished for exercising his or her right to a jury trial? Are we saying that no consideration should be given to the circumstance in which there are facts that are genuinely in dispute in a criminal prosecution?
Courts exist to resolve disputes. We resolve disputes by conducting a trial. There are plenty of cases in which there can be a question of whether or not the prosecutor can prove up his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt. But should the defendant automatically receive additional punishment because he or she stood up and demanded that the prosecutor meet the state's burden of proof?
I know that prosecutors want to resolve the vast majority of cases through plea agreements. I know that judges love it when 90% of the cases in their courts are resolved without the need of a trial. I also know that people plead guilty when they insist they are innocent because they don't want to chance a more severe punishment if they exercise their right to a jury trial.
There are cases that get tried because the defense believes the state's offer is outrageous. There are cases that get tried because even if the defendant is convicted, he can't get any worse than what was offered prior to trial. There are cases that get tried because the defendant insists he or she isn't guilty and won't accept any offer. Finally, there are cases that get tried because there is a question of whether the state can meet its burden of proof.
These are all legitimate reasons to take a case to a jury. No defendant should be punished more severely because their case fell into one of these categories. A formal policy of punishing a defendant who chose to go to trial more severely than a defendant who entered a guilty plea does not ensure that justice is done. It ensures that a person's right to have a jury of their peers determine whether or not the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt is eroded to the point of being meaningless.