By Ankita Joshi
MARICOPA COUNTY, AZ – Somil Trivedi of the American Civil Liberties Union is bringing a suit in Maricopa County, Arizona to challenge how the plea bargain is used by prosecutors to pervert justice by penalizing people who seek a jury trial.
Triveldi appeared on the Cato Daily Podcast with Host Caleb Brown to discuss the qualities about plea bargaining that make them coercive for defendants.
He began by stating that it is a prosecutor’s “professional obligation” to seek justice and not just convictions. However, plea bargains have reversed this, he said.
This was followed by outlining the punitive tools that prosecutors possess that allow them to “exercise in extraction in coercion.”
These tools include an “almost ubiquitous pretrial detention, mandatory minimum sentences… [and] judges allow this without any constitutional guardrails.”
The combination of all these “tools” put pressure on defendants who want to make it home to their families, and are made to feel as though they have no other choice but to accept a plea deal.
In Maricopa County, the third largest judicial district in the country, the voting public pride themselves in their punitive approach “which has destroyed lives,” stated Trivedi.
The county system of courts consist of early disposition courts, which are intended to move low level drug offenders quickly through the system into drug treatments and are meant to avoid convictions. However, Trivedi makes the argument that prosecutors have perverted these courts into coercing convictions.
He stated how prosecutors tell every single defendant that if they reject the first offer and assert rights to anything such as their right to a preliminary hearing, a trial, discovery, the next offered plea deal will be “substantially harsher.” And this is written on the top of every plea deal.
Trivedi noted how this is “essentially a threat from the state.”
And while the issue is not unique to Maricopa County, the lawsuit is centered there as the issue is “on steroids.”
The lawsuit that is being filed will not only be about Maricopa County denying these claims, but also about asking judges what they are going to do about this obvious abuse of power.
Trivedi continues by remarking that the number of those who would be innocent if they hadn’t taken the plea deal is extremely high, even if they don’t know the exact number, especially since 45 percent of all people at any time behind bars are innocent.
The immediate goal of the lawsuit is not to end plea bargaining entirely, but rather “make it more fair,” stated Trivedi.
This includes implementing guardrails that prevent prosecutors from retaliating against folks who choose to exercise their rights, working in the legislatures to cut down on punitive tools, making punitive detention the exception to the rule, rather than roughly 75 percent of the cases as it is now, the removal of mandatory minimums, and adopting policies to charge for the absolute minimum.
Trivedi argued that these measures will “even the playing field,” so that plea bargains are more of a fair negotiation.
It will also force prosecutors to value cases they are bringing in, rather than bringing in many cases, leaning on defendants, and disposing of them.
In the status quo, 80 percent of the convicted crimes are misdemeanors because prosecutors are able to “churn these convictions out with low cost and low work.”
Trivedi ended his argument by proposing his solution to the issue.
He stated that prosecutors should be limited in making offers to defendants, unless defendants show an interest in a plea deal or explicitly ask for one. This approach would allow for a protection of the rights of defendants and would minimize the level of coercion present within plea deals.
This would also allow prosecutors to value their cases as a whole, and “focus on stuff that really matters in order to solve societal problems,” he said.