Ask some residents of Socorro County, and they’ll likely tell you that the first thing they would change about our criminal justice system is the number of “plea bargains” criminals seem to receive. Most people hate the idea that accused criminals are allowed to “get off” for their crimes, simply by making a deal with a few lawyers.
But did you know that there are many factors that go into resolving a case before it goes to trial? Everything from cost to practicality and even the victim’s own opinion plays some role in the process.
Defendants and prosecutors are oftentimes not the only parties involved in the resolution process. In some cases, it is the victims themselves who seek resolution without a trial. A court case can drag on for months, and can be extremely arduous, especially someone who has been victimized by a crime.
Socorro County employs two full time “Victim Advocates”, who work closely with crime victims to ensure their wishes are known by all parties involved in trying their case.
Taking a case to trial can be risky, with any number of possible outcomes. Many prosecutors find that settling a case before it goes to court a way to ensure justice for an injured party, while saving tax payer dollars.
Like any business or government operation, courts have a limited budget that they must operate under. Court costs, which encompass everything from staff salaries to building maintenance fees, can be staggering. Oftentimes, the budget is not enough to accommodate the sheer number of criminal cases resulting in a district.
In many states and counties (not just in New Mexico), courts simply lack the funds to try each and every case that appears before them. If every single person arrested for every single crime were to be put on trial, the back log for cases would skyrocket. Decades could pass before a case even came before a judge.
Mediating a just resolution in certain cases frees up much needed resources of the court. Adjudicating minor cases out of the courts also allows resources to be freed up to deal with more significant crimes. Every minor infraction a prosecutor is allowed to “plea”, equates to more time they can spend trying criminals who pose a serious threat to society.
Some people might have the impression that a defendant who pleas out his case gets off without having to admit any wrongdoing. But in order to resolve a case, he or she must admit to all or at least some guilt in the matter they are accused of.
Out of court resolutions are also meant to afford first time offenders an opportunity at a second chance. Typically, most first offenders (unless the crime is especially heinous) are given probation, and monitored under supervision of the court.
But the system is also designed to punish repeat offenders, or those those who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to rehabilitate. A prior felon will, in many instances, face mandatory convictions for his or her crimes. Certain statutes call for automatic sentencing “enhancements”, which can be automatically applied when a defendant fails to meet the conditions of their plea.
Special thanks to Clint Wellburn of the Socorro County District Attorney. Socorro County Victims Advocates are Mary Gorton and Herman Romero.