District Attorney's Viewpoint
Statement (November 24, 1992)
Last week, I directed my staff not to plea bargain any case which had been indicted by a grand jury. Of course, defendants were free to plead to the crimes as charged in the indictment, or to attempt to negotiate a plea before an indictment resulted. This direction was met by protests from some that the system would collapse. In my view, this objection demonstrates the need for the system to take stock of itself and answer this question: is it actually accomplishing what it was designed to accomplish. For if the system really will collapse unless we plea bargain, then there must be something terribly wrong with the system. It means that those charged with crime have a stranglehold on the rest of us; it means that society has ceded control to those it has accused of violating its laws; and it means that our system is running us, instead of the other way around.
I have been part of the criminal justice system for 17 years as a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and a judge. I believe strongly in the presumption of innocence, and long ago made clear to my staff that they should dismiss any charge unsupported by the evidence. We have now reached the point, though, where criminal defendants are publicly protesting that my refusal to plea bargain will force judges to impose the sentences that the law established for their crimes. As a result, many robbers, rapists, burglars, and drug dealers will have to go to jail. I can certainly understand the defendants protesting that occurrence, but what about the rest of us?
I've seen others get discouraged and cynical about the system. Judges and prosecutors know that it is counterproductive to run around struggling to do a trial in one case, hold a hearing in another, engage in bargaining with different defendants to get pleas to help lighten the load, and call a calendar of other cases, all at the same time. After years of watching the burdens increase while the resources to carry them diminish, many remain convinced that the system needs to be changed but feel powerless to change it. I well understand the judges' frustration, because I have felt it myself. But when I was elected District Attorney four years ago, I told the people of the Bronx I was in office to make a difference. One way for me to do that is to force an examination of the system. If change is needed -- and it certainly is -- then let all of us join together to do what has to be done. I realize that some may fear what I am doing. I really believe, however, that business as usual isn't necessarily good business.
Q & A on District Attorney Plea Bargaining Policy
(June 1, 1993)
Q. What is your "plea bargaining" policy?
A. My staff may not consent to a plea of guilty to less than the top charge in any case which has been indicted by a grand jury, except when:
- a drug-addicted defendant wants and needs treatment;
- a defendant is willing and able to cooperate with a current investigation;
- or the interests of justice require that a lesser plea be accepted because of truly exceptional circumstances.
Of course, if any charge against a defendant cannot be proven, my staff will dismiss it and accept a plea to a charge we can sustain.
Q. Don't criminal defendants have the right to plea bargain every case?
A. Absolutely not. A defendant has the right either to plead guilty to the entire indictment or to demand a trial. Plea bargaining requires the court's permission and the district attorney's consent.
Q. Why did you announce this policy?
A. I believe our criminal justice system has become more concerned with disposing of cases than with the quality of its dispositions. Frankly, in New York City today there are simply too few judges and courtrooms to handle the flow of cases. Obviously, more resources are needed. When those resources are not forthcoming, there is a tendency to look for a "quick fix" -- in this case, quick dispositions. That kind of desperation for dispositions produces a "marketplace" mentality which puts too much bargaining power in the hands of criminal defendants, and pays too little attention to the community's concerns. I announced my policy last November because I wanted to force the system to find real solutions to the very real problems it faces.
Q. Has anyone objected to your policy?
A. Yes. Defendants are protesting that my refusal to plea bargain will force judges to impose the sentences that the law established for the defendants' crimes. As a result, many robbers, rapists, burglars, and drug dealers will have to go to prison, or will have to stay there for a longer time. Some judges and correction department personnel expressed fears that defendants would not plead guilty to the top charge, that pending cases would escalate out of control, and that the City jails would explode with inmates awaiting trial.
Q. Are defendants pleading guilty to the top charge?
A. Absolutely. In fact, during the first quarter of this year, 77% of Bronx pleas were to the top charge. Notably, that figure was only 53% state-wide, and only 46% in the rest of New York City. Further, since I announced my policy the number of felony pleas prior to indictment rose 19%. Pre-indictment dispositions are particularly valuable because they conserve resources and save victims and witnesses time, trouble, and expense.
Q. Are pending cases now escalating out of control?
A. Not at all. In the eight years prior to my policy, pending cases increased by 112%, an average of 14% each year. By comparison, though, between April 1992 and April 1993 pending cases increased by only a fraction of 1%. Moreover, for the first four terms of this year, pending cases actually decreased by a fraction. Additionally, the average time to disposition during the first quarter of this year was faster by 19 days than in Manhattan, and the median time to disposition was faster by 20 days than it was state-wide.
Q. As a result of your policy, are the City jails exploding with inmates awaiting trial?
A. Certainly not. In fact, between last November and this April, the number of incarcerated defendants awaiting trial on Bronx cases actually declined by 2%.
Q. Viewing your policy over its first six months, what is its greatest accomplishment?
A. Simply put, it has improved the quality and professionalism of criminal justice in the Bronx