Slate has run an interview with law professor John Pfaff, who suggests that, contrary to popular belief, America’s mass incarceration problem is not a result of the war on drugs or longer prison sentences. Instead, he posits that it’s the result of prosecutors charging more felonies than they used to. [According to Pfaff, between the years 1994 to 2008, the probability that a district attorney would file a felony charge increased from 1 in 3, to 2 in 3.] Pfaff doesn’t know the reason for the increase, nor does he know how to combat it. This brings up some interesting questions.
First, why are prosecutors charging more cases these days? Well, why not? With a national plea rate in excess of 90%, it’s painless. It makes good political sense to indict 2 in 3 cases if you know that they’re both likely to plead. That way you can be “tough on crime” and lazy at the same time.
Second, how do we discourage prosecutors from bringing too many charges? It seems to me that taking more cases to trial would help. If prosecutors expect the cases that they indict to be tried instead of pled, they’re much less likely to pursue weak cases or cases with unserious charges. This will have the laudatory effect of both minimizing the risk of innocent people going to prison, as well as making sure that our prisons only hold people who really need to be there.
Of course, legislatures can help with this by jettisoning the draconian drug sentences that exist in this country, and replacing them with sentences that are reasonable. After all, it’s longer sentences that compel defendants, even in cases where the evidence against them is weak, to plead guilty. If, however, the sentences were such that going to trial were more frequently worth the risk, more trials would happen, forcing prosecutors to prioritize. That would get the charging rate back down to 1 in 3 pretty quickly, I bet. And maybe it won’t even be that much longer before the United States no longer has the largest prison population in the world.
The Prison Problem (David Brooks, 29 Sept. 2015)