Jack Abramoff and the Odds on a Plea: The Ticker (Corrected)

a | A

By Michael Kinsley

(Corrects Abramoff prison term in first sentence.)

Jack Abramoff served almost four years for having crossed a very fuzzy line between what is illegal fraud and bribery and what goes on in Washington every day. Kevin Ring, a junior member of the Abramoff conspiracy, initially was sentenced to 17 to 22 years. (Prosecutors wanted life!) The Washington Post suspects that this draconian sentence may have resulted from Ring demanding a trial instead of settling for a plea bargain. A federal district judge agreed, saying, “It is easy to see why such an inference might be justified.”

The Post observed: “There is a fine line between rewarding someone who cooperates and punishing another who chooses to seek vindication in court. The Justice Department crossed that line in Mr. Ring’s case.”

In fact, there is no line at all between a system that rewards someone who cops a plea and a system that punishes someone who doesn’t. It’s all part of our criminal justice system -- the real system, more accurately portrayed on "Law & Order" than in July 4th homilies. Virtually all criminal cases end in a plea bargain, not a trial. The system could not function otherwise; it would be too costly. Plea bargaining is a whole different system of justice that operates parallel to the official one, with none of the Constitutional protections of a trial (though a defense attorney's motion to suppress evidence or assert some other Constitutional right can sweeten a prosecutor’s offer.)

Seventeen years is an absurd sentence for Mr. Ring’s crimes. And there is no parole in the federal system, so 17 years means something pretty close to 17 years. At the judge's order, prosecutors now are asking for 50 months -- two months more than Abramoff himself received.

But this is just one case. Of the 1.5 million people in prison in the U.S., there must be many who sized the odds -- correctly sized them -- and decided to cop a plea even though they are completely innocent (as well as some, no doubt, who are guilty but gambled on a trial and walked free).

The Post editorial concludes by stating that Mr. Ring should be “held accountable for his serious crimes but not punished for choosing to challenge the government's charge in court.” Sorry, can’t be done.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the editorial board.)






-0- Oct/17/2011 20:41 GMT