‘Perry Mason’ is not the norm in the criminal-justice system

Thanks to “Law and Order” on TV and movies such as “A Few Good Men,” many of us may think of jury trials as the main driver of the criminal-justice system.

In these portrayals the prosecutor and defense attorney dramatically argue the case. The jury listens in rapt silence.

But in the real world, a jury is rarely in the picture, according to a recent article in The Crime Report by a Pennsylvania lawyer.

"The plea bargain has made jury trials obsolete," writes Matthew T. Mangino, a former Lawrence County district attorney and currently a lawyer with the firm Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George.

Jury trials are involved in only a small percentage of cases, the column notes.

“Ninety-seven percent of federal criminal prosecutions are resolved by plea bargain. In state courts the numbers are comparable. The plea bargain may be the grease that keeps the criminal justice system churning, but it may also be a sign of a system in need of repair."

In a jury trial, a defendant must be found guilty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ while in a plea bargain, the proof need only be ‘probable cause’ at a preliminary hearing or before a grand jury.

There may be sentencing incentives for defendants, even some who are innocent, to plead guilty, Mangino writes.

According to Human Rights Watch, the average sentence for federal drug offenders who pleaded guilty was five years, four months, based on raw federal sentencing data for 2012; for those convicted after trial the average sentence was 16 years.

"When you see that people that go to trial often get sentences that are three and four times longer ... well, there could be an incentive for people to plead guilty,” he said in an interview. This is a problem across the country.

"People should be able to have their day in court without the risk of having the book being thrown at them and they never get out of jail again."

Read Matthew Mangino's full article on The Crime Report, which is published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The Crime Report is a member of the Investigative News Network.

Emily DeMarco is a PublicSource reporter who focuses on public safety and criminal justice.