The Reality of the Criminal Justice System is Not Trendy
By Eric Siddall
The trendy storyline in criminal justice is to blame the prosecutor, blame the police, blame the laws and blame society. Never mind the wake of destruction violent criminals leave on the community, especially economically vulnerable neighborhoods. Never mind the approximately 17,000 Americans murdered in 2016. Never mind those people. Let’s now focus on the injustice of putting away rapists, gang members and murderers.
In this brave new world, an actor like Danny Trejo can go on television and promote a new “documentary” about surviving prison. Trejo went on the KTLA Morning News and took the opportunity to castigate prosecutors and others in the system. Trejo, a self-proclaimed expert in the criminal justice arena, stated prosecutors are not interested in justice, but just racking up convictions to advance their careers. In his view, tens of thousands of people in prison have been “convicted illegally” (he didn’t define what that means), the prisons are in place simply to make money, and the criminal justice system is just a “deal-making” system.
Here is the reality. Every day prosecutors review cases submitted by law enforcement and decide not to issue charges, because while there is evidence that a suspect may have committed the crime, the case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If a felony case is charged, before it can even be set for trial, a judge must find probable cause that a crime has occurred and the defendant is guilty of committing the crime. If a defendant elects a trial, the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard we have (for a good reason) in the law, to 12 members of the community.
Mr. Trejo complains about the plea bargain process being coercive. It is actually a process designed to benefit the defendant, not the prosecutor. It allows the defendant to limit the charges he can be convicted of, and lessen the time he has to serve. The trade-off for the prosecution is that they do not have to put on a trial and inconvenience victims and witnesses. Most powerfully, however, is that no defendant is forced to plea to any charge-they have the absolute right to insist the prosecutor prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
That there are a lot of people in state prison reflects that there is a lot of crime in this state. These prisons are not filled with thousands of innocent, low-level offenders without a long record. As we have blogged before, those sent to prison are guilty of serious crimes — in fact, more than 70% of current prison inmates are guilty of “crimes against persons.” Or put another way, for every inmate in prison for a crime against a person, there is at least one or more victims in California who suffered at their hands.
It might be trendy to highlight ex-cons and berate the justice system for its flaws, real or perceived. Apparently not worthy of such treatment is the aftermath for the victims and families of those suffered crimes such as murder, rape, robbery or child sexual abuse. However, as prosecutors we are proud to stand with victims of crime. We are proud to stand by the communities often forgotten in this brave new world.
Eric Siddall is Vice President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.