The truth is, we don’t really have a criminal justice system. Mostly, what we have is a plea-bargain system. Police arrest people, prosecutors charge them with crimes, and then a deal is struck. When the police search and arrest you, you have a lot of constitutional due process rights, but they’re mostly enforceable only if you go to trial. If you go to trial, you have a lot of constitutional due process rights there. But the prosecutor’s decision to charge you with a crime (and what to charge you with), which is key to the plea bargain deal, is subject to virtually no constitutional protections at all.
Once charged with a crime, defendants are in a tough position. First, they must bear the costs of a defense, assuming they are not indigent. Second, even if they consider themselves entirely innocent, they will face strong pressure to accept a plea bargain — pressure made worse by the modern tendency of prosecutors to overcharge with extensive "kitchen sink" indictments: Prosecutors count on the fact that when a defendant faces dozens of felony charges, the prospect that a jury might go along with even one of them will be enough to make a plea deal look attractive.
Because the vast majority of cases result in plea bargains, not trials, all the constitutional due process rights make little difference. The result is something that, except in rare cases where the crime is high-profile or the defendant is rich, doesn’t look much like what’s taught in civics classes. It looks more like a conveyor belt to prison, because that’s basically what it is.
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