Pundit Clive Crook has written a piece which ties together many different problems with the U.S. criminal justice system, arguing that it's "a national disgrace, from top to bottom." His comments on the federal court system seem particularly apt.
Harsh words, but Crook makes a good case. Excerpt:
"The U.S. — a country that loves freedom, so I’m told — has virtually abolished trial by jury. According to one recent count, guilty pleas resolve 97 percent of federal cases that are prosecuted to a conclusion. Instead of bothersome trials, the U.S. has a plea-bargain system in which prosecutors not only bring the charge but also, in effect, determine guilt and pass sentence. As this astonishing assault on civil liberty proceeds, judges have allowed themselves to be turned into rubber-stamping functionaries, apparently for reasons of administrative simplicity."
Another good bit:
"The U.S. is not a forgiving country, and most Americans believe in harsh punishment for serious crimes. I’ve no quarrel with that. But the principle of proportionality — really, the very notion of justice in sentencing — seems to have been overthrown. According to a forthcoming report from the American Civil Liberties Union, 2,074 federal inmates are serving sentences of life imprisonment without possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes. Think about that."
"You can tell from my puzzlement and outrage that I’m not a lawyer. It takes years of legal training to be acquainted with this system and not be appalled by it. Somebody who knows more about the law than I do will have to explain why plea bargains and mandatory minimum sentences don’t violate the Constitution’s requirements of “due process” and “equal protection of the laws,” or why life in prison without parole for a nonviolent offense isn’t an instance of the “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. You’ll need an expert to tell you why the Supreme Court was right to uphold a sentence of 50 years to life (under California’s three-strikes rule) for the crime of stealing nine video cassettes."
As far as I can tell, Clive Crook isn't a libertarian or ACLU official or other variety of sorehead; he simply seems to be an economist and pundit who is often worth reading.