An opinion piece, surprisingly published in the New York Times this weekend, lays out a blueprint for how even a modest number of criminal suspects demanding their right to a trial by jury rather than accepting plea bargains could bring the entire justice system to its knees.
Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is intimately familiar with what can happen to those caught in the gears of the system. She writes in her article about Susan Burton, who became addicted to crack cocaine after her five-year-old son was run over and killed by a Los Angeles police cruiser and spent the next fifteen years in and out of jail before getting clean and founding an organization to help women like herself.
"Her organization, A New Way of Life, supplies a lifeline for women released from prison," Alexander says of Burton. "But it does much more: it is also helping to start 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."
It was Burton who posed the crucial question to Alexander: “What 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? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?”
Alexander is well aware of the pitfalls in such an approach. She notes that more than 90% of criminal cases never go before a jury, and the system is rigged against anyone who attempts to exercise their rights. The Supreme Court has ruled that neither threats of lengthy prison sentences to force a defendant to plead nor the draconian sentencing guidelines which makes such threats possible are unconstitutional.
But on the other hand, even those who do plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges may find their lives ruined as they are cut off from both employment and government benefits. And if an awareness of that fact were to increase the demand for jury trials even modestly, it could have a dramatic impact.
Alexander quotes Angela Davis as saying, "If the number of people exercising their trial rights suddenly doubled or tripled in some jurisdictions, it would create chaos.” And Alexander believes that chaos could create a crisis in the system that would force policy makers to take notice.
Alexander concludes her piece by once more quoting Susan Burton, who told her, "As you know, another brutal system of racial and social control once prevailed in this country, and it never would have ended if some people weren’t willing to risk their lives. It would be nice if reasoned argument would do, but as we’ve seen that’s just not the case. So maybe, just maybe, if we truly want to end this system, some of us will have to risk our lives.”
Photo of Michelle Alexander from the Miller Center via Flickr