In the last installment of this series, I documented how the police and prosecutors target blacks and Latinos for arrest and prosecution at far higher rates than whites even though whites buy and sell drugs at the same rate. But arrest and prosecution is just the first step. The second step is what happens at trial, where it is all but impossible for a defendant to get a fair trial — and often to get a trial at all.
Because the vast majority of those targeted for arrest and prosecution are poor minorities, about 90% of them are represented by public defenders appointed by the court. In most states and local areas, public defenders are seriously underpaid and overworked and lack all resources to mount a credible defense. In most cases, the defendant doesn’t even meet their attorney until literally a few minutes before going into court. The attorney has done no investigation (and couldn’t afford to do it even if they wanted to), hasn’t even spoken to their client, and then has a few minutes to tell them what to do — which is almost always to plead guilty.
There are many reasons for this. First, as I said, they just don’t have the time to go to trial. In Detroit, for instance, there are five part-time public defenders who handle an average of 2,400 cases a year. They can’t spend even one day on a trial, much less spend the time preparing for it, interviewing witnesses, preparing briefs and motions, and so forth. So their goal is to push people through as quickly as possible.
Second, the prosecutors often multiply charges in order to force people to plead guilty. They’ll charge them with multiple offenses, each of them carrying mandatory minimum sentences, but offer a deal — we’re gonna charge you with multiple counts that add up to 30 years in prison, but if you plead guilty to one felony count we’ll recommend a year in prison and probation after that. Even if you’re innocent and know it, what choice do you have? Your attorney can’t really defend you in court anyway, so you could easily lose and end up spending the rest of your life locked up.
More than 90% of all criminal cases result in a guilty plea and never go to court as a result, even if the person is innocent. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people every year. In the next installment, I’ll talk about the consequences of those decisions.