A few months ago, I was in a meeting with a couple of judges from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. One of them was telling me about a case in which he had just presided over a plea agreement. The case involved a felony assault charge that was being plead down to a misdemeanor. The original charge was significant, the kind that, if a guilty verdict were reached, would carry life-altering jail time, as much as eight years. Because the felony indictment was so significant, bail had been set at $25,000. Unable to pay even the 10 percent of that a bail bondsman would require, the defendant had spent the previous three months in the county jail.
The prosecuting and defense attorneys negotiated a deal, and the defendant agreed to it, pleading guilty to a much lower level misdemeanor and released with credit for the time he had already served in jail. What, I asked, were the underlying facts of the case? There was an argument in a convenience store. The owner accused the defendant of having stolen something; the defendant said he hadn't; the argument got physical, and the store owner had been pushed. What was the defendant accused of stealing?
A bag of peanuts.
Three months in jail.
Felony assaults are serious. That's a charge reserved for the most serious of beatings. We don't know why the charge was employed here, but in the end, the charge the prosecutor felt could still get a guilty plea was a misdemeanor. So, for that defendant, that's three months of not working, not paying rent, not going to parent-teacher conferences, not parenting at all. It's three months of getting poorer, getting closer to being evicted, three months of getting closer to becoming a burden on our tax payer funded system rather than being a payer of taxes.
Every year, more than 10,000 felony cases hit the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. In 2015, there were 10,779. Of those, 97 percent were resolved through plea deals, diversion programs, and other alternative dispositions. In the end, we're talking about thousands of plea deals over the course of the year happening in 34 different county courts.
We tend to think of justice as happening in trials, but only 339 cases actually went to trial in 2016. In reality, justice is meted out in thousands of plea deals.
Frankly, I have no idea how many of them happen in any way similar to the story above. No doubt, many of the negotiated plea agreements bring about an approximation of the sort of justice we want a system of law enforcement and legal proceedings to result in. Someone does something bad and they pay a penalty. But there are facts about the workings of the criminal justice system that ought to give us pause.
For instance, sometimes a convicted felon gets exonerated. The very existence of exoneree--particularly those released from death row--tells us that the system gets it wrong, sometimes in big ways. Sometimes, defendants offer what's called an Alford plea--that's when you plead guilty but still assert your innocence (if, say, you are charged with murder, claim not to have done it, but understand that if you go to trial and lose you might be put to death and you'd prefer a life sentence.) Another point worth considering is that often the final plea might have no basis in fact. Many of us have gone to court to deal with a speeding ticket and left with a hefty fine after pleading guilty to a broken taillight. That also happens at the felony level. Cases that began as sexual offenses have been disposed with a defendant pleading guilty to other charges (kidnapping, assault, or possession of criminal tools, for instance) which allows the defendant to avoid landing on a sex offender registry (which many people in criminal justice think may not be working as intended, but that's a whole other story).
We've been working with the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association and ideastream on a few different conversations about criminal justice reform. Of all the conversations we've had, this seems to be one of the most important, and it's happening on September 19th, in the late afternoon. You should be there. We'll have prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys on the panel, victims rights advocates and community members in the audience, and some great new tools to facilitate the dialogue between the audience and the panel. But to make it really work, we need you to be there, too.