Prosecutors’ Increased Power Means Fewer Cases Go to Trial

After decades of new laws to toughen criminal sentencing, prosecutors have greater leverage to extract guilty pleas from defendants and reduce the number of cases that go to trial, often by using the threat of more serious charges with mandatory sentences or other harsher penalties, says the New York Times. The process has become coercive in some places, forcing defendants to weigh options based on the relative risks of facing a judge and jury rather than simple matters of guilt or innocence.

“We now have an incredible concentration of power in the hands of prosecutors,” said Richard E. Myers II, a former assistant United States attorney who is now an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina. He said that so much influence now resides with prosecutors that “in the wrong hands, the criminal justice system can be held hostage.” Growing prosecutorial power is a significant reason that the percentage of felony cases that go to trial has dropped sharply in many Fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts

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