“The Difference between Justice for the Masses and Justice for the Few”

In today’s New York Times, Brooklyn public defender Scott Hechinger makes a very strong case that criminal defendants in American courts face a two-tiered system of justice, and most defendants get the worse of it.

Mr. Trump assailed the practice of pretrial detention as “tough” when Paul Manafort had his bail revoked before his trial began. He then bemoaned the “very unfair” power that prosecutors wield to force people in the system “to break” in the wake of the Michael Cohen plea and the Manafort jury conviction and subsequent guilty plea. He lamented the devastating collateral consequences that arise from “a mere allegation” when Rob Porter was forced to resign after being accused of domestic violence; raged about the late-night, “no knock” raids of Mr. Cohen’s properties; and expressed outrage that the government, in its investigation of Carter Page, was able to overcome the protections of the Fourth Amendment to obtain a FISA warrant with “no hearings,” while also endorsing the idea, raised by the writer Andrew McCarthy, that they should be “looking at the judges who signed off on this stuff.”

[…]

I understand President Trump’s outrage. It is remarkable that people, presumed innocent, are locked up before being convicted of any crime. It is deeply unfair that mere accusations can lead to devastating, lifelong consequences. It is alarming that, in a system theoretically built around transparency and truth seeking, police and prosecutors have such outsize power to surveil, search, detain, bully, coerce and nearly destroy a person without producing evidence sufficient to secure a conviction. (emphasis in original.)

But it’s important to note how these defendants were actually treated as they work their way through the system, and how it differs from most everyone else.

Take Mr. Manafort’s experience with pretrial detention. Despite the seriousness of the allegations and his clear ability to flee, he was not in jail for a majority of his case pretrial. He and his attorneys were able to arrange an intricate bail package that was tailored to his financial circumstances, including $10 million bond and the surrender of his passport. This is how bail is supposed to work — not as punishment to lock someone up before a conviction, but as a way to guarantee that the accused will return to court while at liberty. Mr. Manafort was detained pretrial only after the presiding judge found evidence of witness tampering, following nearly two weeks of motion practice and then oral argument while Mr. Manafort continued to sleep in his own bed.

This kind of accommodation is unheard-of for the roughly quarter million people, my clients included, in jail for no reason other than their inability to pay bail. In the real world, despite the constitutional prohibition on excessive bail, decisions to detain people happen in a matter of seconds, with little to no consideration of an individual’s ability to pay. In just the past month alone, prosecutors requested and judges set bail totaling over $200,000 on clients of mine who, collectively, could not have afforded one one-thousandth of that.

Hechinger is also correct when he writes that the treatment of these high-profile defendants should not be resented: rather, it’s the double-standard for the privileged that should be eliminated. A meaningful presumption of innocence and the other rights afforded to Manafort et al. should be replicated and applied to the accused throughout the state and federal justice systems because they reflect constitutional protections intended to curb the coercive power of government.

The piece is worth reading in full here.