AFTER years as a civil rights lawyer, I rarely find myself speechless. But some questions a woman I know posed during a phone conversation one recent evening gave me pause: â€œWhat would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldnâ€™t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?â€
The woman was Susan Burton, who knows a lot about being processed through the criminal justice system.
Her odyssey began when a Los Angeles police cruiser ran over and killed her 5-year-old son. Consumed with grief and withoutÂ accessÂ to therapy or antidepressant medications, Susan became addicted to crack cocaine. She lived in an impoverished black community under siege in the â€œwar on drugs,â€ and it was but a matter of time before she was arrested and offered the first of many plea deals that left her behind bars for a series of drug-related offenses. Every time she was released, she found herself trapped in an under-caste, subject to legal discrimination in employment and housing.
Fifteen years after her first arrest, Susan was finally admitted to a private drug treatment facility and given a job. After she was clean she dedicated her life to making sure no other woman would suffer what she had been through. Susan now runs five safe homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles. Her organization,Â A New Way of Life, supplies a lifeline for women released from prison. But it does much more: it is also helping toÂ startÂ a movement. With groups like All of Us or None, it is organizing formerly incarcerated people and encouraging them to demand restoration of their basic civil and human rights.
I was stunned by Susanâ€™sÂ questionÂ about plea bargains because she â€” of all people â€” knows the risks involved in forcing prosecutors to make cases against people who have been charged with crimes. Could she be serious about organizing people, on a large scale, to refuse to plea-bargain when charged with a crime?
â€œYes, Iâ€™m serious,â€ she flatly replied.
I launched, predictably, into a lecture about what prosecutors would do to people if they actually tried to stand up for their rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees the accused basic safeguards, including the right to be informed of charges against them, to an impartial, fair and speedy jury trial, to cross-examine witnesses and to the assistance of counsel.
But in this era of mass incarceration â€” when our nationâ€™s prison population has quintupled in a few decades partly as a result of the war on drugs and the â€œget toughâ€ movement â€” these rights are, for the overwhelming majority of people hauled into courtrooms across America, theoretical. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.
â€œThe truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used,â€ said Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the libertarian CatoÂ Institute. In other words: the system is rigged.