I bet you didn’t know Ted Cruz was a criminal justice reformer, but it’s true. It rarely benefits his partisan agenda to beat the reform drum, but in this essay written for the Brennan Center for Justice, he lays out some excellent policy suggestions.
How do we account for such enlightened prose from a man who is normally dismissed as a narrow-minded bigot?
First, Cruz is smart. They don’t let dummies on the Princeton debate team. Secondly, the junior senator from Texas understands that the deep flaws in our criminal justice system could be turned on conservative Christians if anyone had a mind to do so. I doubt this is likely, but when you live on the losing side of the culture war a measure of paranoia comes with the territory.
Here’s Ted’s critique of the demise of the jury trial. I encourage you to read the entire essay.
The third problem, which is exacerbated by the first two, is the demise of jury trials. Plea bargaining has become the norm in our criminal justice system, while the constitutional right to a jury trial — which the Founders understood to be a bulwark against tyranny — is now rarely exercised. Contrary to popular perceptions, we no longer have a system where a jury determines a defendant’s guilt or innocence in a public trial. In 2013, 97 percent of all federal criminal charges that were not dismissed were resolved through plea bargains; less than 3 percent went to trial.
In this plea-bargaining system, prosecutors have extraordinary power, nudging both judges and juries out of the truth-seeking process. The prosecutor is now the proverbial judge, jury, and executioner in the mine-run of cases. Often armed with an extensive menu of crimes, each with their own sentencing ranges, federal prosecutors can wield their discretionary charging power to great effect by threatening the most serious charges that theoretically (if not realistically) can be proved. If the accused succumbs to the threat and pleads guilty, which often happens, the prosecutor agrees to bring lesser or entirely different charges that carry a lower sentencing range.
Given the risks involved in turning down a plea offer, it is not unheard of for people to plead guilty to crimes they never committed. Of the 1,428 legally acknowledged exonerations recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations since 1989, 151 (or roughly 10 percent) involved false guilty pleas. It is estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of convicted felons who have pleaded guilty are actually innocent. In a federal prison population of 218,000 — the number at the end of fiscal year 2011 — where 97 percent pleaded guilty, that means that anywhere from 4,229 to 16,916 people could be imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
The plea-bargaining system is premised on the assumption that there is relatively equal bargaining power between the accused and the state. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Mitigating the coercive effect of the plea-bargaining process will require empowering the defense. And one way to do that is to reduce the informational asymmetry between prosecutors and defense counsel. Plea offers are often foisted upon the accused before the defense has had enough time to investigate the facts, and the longer the investigation takes, the less generous the plea off may become. Congress should pass legislation that requires the government — whether constitutionally required or not — to disclose material exculpatory evidence before the accused enters into any plea agreement. This reform will reduce the risk of false guilty pleas by helping ensure that the accused is better informed before sealing his or her fate.
Not all criminal justice reforms benefit criminal defendants. I, for instance, strongly supported Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) Military Justice Improvement Act, which would have transferred charging authority for many non-military-related crimes, including sexual assault, from unit commanders to independent military prosecutors — a change that may well make it more likely for charges to be brought against defendants. Such a reform will better serve the interests of justice. Likewise, the reforms discussed in this essay would serve the interests of justice by giving much-needed protection to individuals — many of whom are poor or minorities — who find themselves in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors