1 month ago

The good and bad economics of plea bargains

Plea bargains let persons accused of crimes plead guilty and receive reduced charges or a reduced sentence. Although some people find the reduced criminal incentives offensive, this bargaining makes economic sense. But our mass incarceration illustrates a limit of the economic argument.

Our criminal justice system extensively employs pleas; 97% of criminal convictions result from such bargains. Although TV dramas focus on jury trials (and particularly defense lawyers like Matlock or Perry Mason), trials are rare.

Plea bargains make economic sense because trials are costly. Trials require courtrooms, lawyers, judges, court reporters, bailiffs and juries. Witnesses must come to court to testify. A guilty plea saves these costs.

Why should defendants ever plead guilty and willingly agree to go to prison and waive their right to an appeal? A plea deal must offer defendants a better deal than conviction at trial. In a murder case, for example, prosecutors might agree not to seek the death penalty. A plea-bargained conviction ensures at least some punishment for a crime and helps deter crime overall.

This bargaining situation parallels labor strikes. Strikes are costly: workers miss paychecks, factories lie idle and businesses might permanently lose customers. Both labor and management are worse off than if they agreed to the same contract with no strike. Strikes represent bargaining failures.

The economic model of bargaining predicts that plea deals should reflect the strength of the evidence. The prosecution will not give much with an open-and-shut case, but the defense attorney should recognize this and counsel shaving a few years off the sentence. If important evidence gets suppressed or a witness recants their testimony, the shaky case makes prosecutors agree to a reduced charge.

Actual guilt or innocence is secondary in the bargaining model to the likelihood of conviction at trial. While we might hope that innocent defendants always get acquitted, wrongful convictions happen, especially with overworked and underfunded public defenders. An innocent person should consider a deal if they look guilty enough. Emotions, not logic, might explain an innocent person’s refusal to plead guilty. We must move past the fantasy that only a guilty person would ever plead guilty.

Building criminal justice almost exclusively around plea bargaining has negative consequences. These highlight the limits of the economic focus on trial costs. Plea bargains enable incarceration on the American scale, with over 2.3 million persons behind bars as of 2016. Whether you think our current incarceration rate is repressive or responsible for the significant drop in crime over the past three decades, mass incarceration could not happen without low-cost plea bargains. The constitutional right to a speedy trial would be violated without guilty pleas. Conversely, speedy adjudication would require many more judges, trial lawyers, and courtrooms.

Another negative of plea bargaining is adding charges to encourage a deal. This is largely necessary. Suppose that the fair sentence for a crime is ten years. If this is the max sentence at trial, a defendant will only accept a plea for a shorter sentence. Prosecutors need to threaten twenty years to induce a plea to ten years. This practice has received attention in the ongoing college admissions bribery case. Actress Lori Loughlin and the other parents refusing plea deals were recently hit with additional bribery and conspiracy charges.

Finally, pervasive plea bargaining might undermine the quality of criminal evidence generally. Cross-examination uncovers mistakes, lies, and bogus theories, but only at trial. If over 90% of convictions come from pleas, the evidence need only be strong enough to induce a deal, not to withstand cross-examination. Sloppy and faked drug tests in two different Massachusetts crime labs recently led to 47,000 convictions being thrown out. Weak evidence also increases the likelihood of innocent people being accused and forced to plead guilty.

We may wish to blame “the system” for plea bargaining’s problems, but ultimately we fail to provide sufficient resources for more trials. This makes prosecutors coerce pleas, inevitably producing miscarriages of justice. Economists contribute too, by overemphasizing the immediate cost savings from plea bargaining.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

9 hours ago

Mayor Randall Woodfin throws down the gauntlet at Birmingham Business Alliance meeting

BIRMINGHAM — Delivering opening remarks at the Birmingham Business Alliance’s (BBA) annual meeting on Wednesday, Magic City Mayor Randall Woodfin challenged the region’s business leaders to stop being so “risk averse.”

Woodfin opened his speech with words of praise for outgoing BBA chairwoman Nancy Goedecke and incoming chairman Jim Gorrie.

He then transitioned into a call-to-action.

“Usually I would get up here and give you all some stats about what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” the mayor advised. “I think it is fair to say that 2019 has been a good year for many [in] your organization — individually and collectively for our Birmingham Business Alliance.”

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Woodfin advised that the BBA leadership is pointing the region’s business community in the right direction.

“And the question is: as members of this organization, are we prepared? Are we ready?” he added.

“I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that since the Great Recession… 60% of all jobs have only gone to 25 cities in America,” Woodfin continued. “You need to know that Birmingham is not on that list. So the question becomes, when you walk out of this room, are we prepared to invest in our competitiveness? Do we want to compete? Do we want to set ourselves apart and not be like any other city in America?”

“We don’t have to be like Nashville or Chattanooga or Atlanta or Austin,” he said. “We need to be the best versions of ourselves.”

The mayor outlined the road to getting to that goal.

“That is going to require us to shake off the way we’ve always done things… just based on the sheer nature of what you do, you’re risk averse. But being risk averse in this time as we move into 2020 under Jim’s (Gorrie’s) leadership will not work for us as an organization or as a city. Or for the future and present of what we want our business community to be — to attract, retain, grow and many other things we have to do,” Woodfin stressed.

“As my challenge I leave to the members of this organization in this room, that we are willing to stand behind Jim, just as we did with Nancy (Goedecke), but really be aggressive,” he concluded. “Really be the opposite of risk averse and be hungry enough to do something that’s going to be different to make Birmingham a place that attracts more businesses and for the current businesses in this community to be and remain successful.”

RELATED: Almost two years in, Randall Woodfin reflects on biggest initiatives

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

Above and beyond: Regions associate honored with Better Life Award after learning sign language to serve deaf customers

Regions Bank on Wednesday honored one of its Alabama associates in a major way for going above and beyond to better the lives of the company’s customers.

In a story posted on Region’s “Doing More Today” website, the company announced Gayla Land was presented with the Better Life Award. This is the top honor bestowed upon Regions associates “for outstanding dedication and job performance, as well as exemplary involvement and commitment to the community.”

For Land, a Regions Bank branch manager in Dothan, the genesis of the award goes back to 2016. She was reportedly serving a deaf customer but wanted to be able to do so better, as communicating properly was a real issue.

“I felt there was something missing. It frustrated me,” Land reminisced. “I could only provide what I could write down. I couldn’t share the information in his approved language.”

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The Regions associate turned that frustration into a solution. Land, on her own time, went out of the way to enroll in American Sign Language classes at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

However, her dedication did not stop there. She not only learned sign language herself but decided to strike up a partnership with the school.

“I fell in love with the deaf community and the language itself,” Land explained. “Then I told the school, ‘Let’s make a partnership to have them come into the branch for financial education seminars,’ and they agreed.”

The student subsequently became the teacher, as Land began teaching in sign language a series of lessons that cover money management, retirement, identity theft and fraud prevention. Her first group reportedly graduated earlier this year.

This is having a real impact on the lives of Regions customers with hearing impairments.

“They feel more confident in their ability to make financial decisions, and I learn something new every time they are with me.” Land advised.

Her commitment to the hearing impaired continued to be displayed Wednesday when she received the award from Regions. The company donates $1,000 in the honoree’s name to a nonprofit organization of his or her choice, and Land chose the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to receive the money.

“They do great work providing skills and education to the deaf and blind communities,” she remarked. “I know they will make great use of the money to provide for those families.”

However, her journey is not done yet.

Land is planning to sharpen her sign language fluency by taking advanced classes.

She also used her new platform to urge others to learn the language as well.

“Don’t be fearful or feel judged. Just try to learn. Even if it’s just one new word every day,” Land concluded. “Your eyes will be opened to a new perspective, and you’ll be embraced by the deaf community because you tried.”

You can watch an almost six-minute video on see Land’s work in action below or here.

RELATED: Merry and bright: How Regions’ headquarters building lights became a holiday tradition

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

13 hours ago

Auburn’s Bo Nix named SEC Freshman of the Year, Derrick Brown named best defensive player

The Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) 14 coaches have voted Auburn University quarterback Bo Nix as the SEC Freshman of the Year and defensive tackle Derrick Brown as the Defensive Player of the Year.

The honors were announced Wednesday by the league office. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players.

Brown was also named by the Associated Press as the AP’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the week.

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Nix now holds the Auburn Tigers’ freshman record for passing yards (2,366), pass completions (200) and touchdown passes (15) in a season. The Alabama native also rushed for seven scores.

Brown had a monster season on the defensive side of the ball and landed as a finalist for just about every national award possible.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 hours ago

Rogers’ report from Washington: The season of giving across East Alabama

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Each Christmas season, I like to highlight a few of the kind things folks across East Alabama are doing for others.

Below is a small sample of ways our fellow Alabamians have cared for each other over the past year.

In Clay County at Central High School, a teacher, Amanda East, gathered the school supplies that were going to be disposed of from the locker clean out. Those items are now set up to donate to students who need them.

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In Lee County, The Hallmark Channel is coming to Beauregard to present new homes to the 15 families who lost everything when the EF-4 tornado devastated the area.

Hallmark will also serve residents a holiday meal at Providence Baptist Church with Santa and toys for the little ones, too.

In Calhoun County, Dara Murphy of Rosa Lee Boutique organized a White Bag Project for individuals to grab a white bag and fill it up for a child in need. They are also taking clothing and furniture to 20 families.

In Lee, Macon and Tallapoosa Counties, Rep. Peeblin Warren assists 400 seniors with gift baskets.

In Randolph County, the Roanoke Police Department is holding its annual toy drive to ensure local children get a Christmas gift.

In Chambers County, the Christian Service Center collects food and toys to donate to families.

In Montgomery County, Woodland United Methodist Church/Town of Pike Road distribute food. Pike Road and Central Alabama Health Care Systems also distribute hygiene items for local veterans.

Reading these stories makes me proud to be from East Alabama. It is truly heartwarming to see our brothers and sisters across the Third District taking time to take care for someone who needs it most.

May we carry this attitude of service to others all year long.

Wishing you and your families a very Merry Christmas. Remember the reason for the season.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers is a Republican from Saks. 

14 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Jaylen Waddle named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year

University of Alabama sophomore wide receiver and returner Jaylen Waddle on Wednesday was announced as the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Special Teams Player of the Year.

He is the first Crimson Tide player to be named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year since Christion Jones in 2013. The honor was voted on by the league’s 14 head coaches, with coaches not permitted to vote for their own players.

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Waddle, who was already selected by Pro Football Focus as a first-team All-American at returner, led the nation this season in punt return average at 24.9 yards per return. Waddle had 19 punt returns for 474 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 77 yards.

The playmaker also returned four kickoffs for 152 yards and one touchdown this season, in addition to 553 yards and six touchdowns on 32 catches at wideout.

This comes after Waddle was one of 14 Bama players on Tuesday who were named to the All-SEC Coaches’ Team. He was actually named to both the first and second teams at different positions.

Juniors Jerry Jeudy (WR), Alex Leatherwood (OL) and Jedrick Wills, Jr. (OL) were first-team selections on offense, while redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings (LB) and junior Xavier McKinney (DB) were honored as first-team defense. Waddle was a first-team selection on special teams.

Redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson was named to the second-team offense along with juniors Najee Harris (RB), DeVonta Smith (WR), Tua Tagovailoa (QB) and Waddle (WR). Seniors Raekwon Davis (DL) and Trevon Diggs (DB) and redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis were second-team choices on defense.

Waddle was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn