Monday, February 18, 2008

Seeking Justice or Convictions

Are we buying the argument offered by candidate Shane Phelps that the Brazos County Attorney needs to try more DWI cases to better serve the community's interests? In an interview with Bryan Eagle reporter, April Avison, Phelps again found fault with the current administration's policy of plea bargaining cases.

Plea bargaining is a fact of life in the criminal justice system. You can't try every case, nor would you want to. Judge Jim Locke's take on the issue?
"Between 2,500 and 3,000 cases are filed in each court on an annual basis," Locke said. "It doesn't take long to realize that the way to keep up with that many cases is to dispose of 60 a week. We can't have 60 trials a week. We can't have 10. We can't have five. The huge majority have to be disposed of by plea bargain."
Prosecutors habitually tell us their job is to seek justice, not convictions. If this is so, then why complain when problem DWI cases, or those charged against first time offenders, are reduced to lesser charges? If society is better served by getting a first-time offender into the justice system by plea bargaining, then why spend time and resources trying cases to a jury, especially when you might lose?

If Phelps believed the prosecutor's credo, then his criticism of his opponent's administration is without foundation. He complained too many DWIs were reduced to lesser charges. He complained those reductions could not be used to enhance future prosecutions if the person became a repeat offender. I disagree those reductions can't be used. They certainly can be used in the punishment phase of any future prosecution.

With arrogance, or bravado, Phelps remarked:
"I will be able to double the number of trials in this office without breaking a sweat," he said, adding that while he understands cases have to be negotiated out of court, the current administration is allowing far too many.
Again, I believe Phelps is going out of his way to pick a fight on this issue. It's not surprising during the election season, though. Nonetheless, if Phelps wants the county attorney job he needs to develop better arguments for why he's the man for the job. Being a better trial attorney, or someone willing to try more cases, does not necessarily serve the community's interest any better that a person with good judgment who decides cases are best resolved by plea bargaining.

As an aside, I'm glad to see the local bar getting into this fight.

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