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Judge raises red flag on plea bargains

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opinion Fargo, 58102
Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

Plea bargaining, the practice of offering a suspect a lesser charge in exchange for a guilty plea, has become a widespread practice in the criminal justice system. As we observe these bargains from a distance, we sometimes wonder if the practice isn't being abused.

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When media report on the arrest of a suspect, they also indicate that, if convicted, this suspect could spend 30 years in jail and pay a $50,000 fine. When the case is plea bargained, the result is a three-year sentence, with two years suspended, and 50 hours of community service.

On the one-year to be served, the villain will get four months off for good behavior and be back on the streets in no time at all. A number of recent child and sex abuse cases have involved convicts whose former crimes should have kept them off the streets long past their most recent crimes.

A variety of explanations are given for plea bargaining:

*Jury trials are very expensive for the county governments that must bear the cost.

*The cases have flaws, raising doubts about the successful prosecution of the suspects so conviction on a lesser crime is better than no conviction at all.

*Generally speaking, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors lack the manpower and funds to investigate cases and conduct effective trials.

*With such a short-cut available, plea bargaining can be an easy way to get rid of cases with minimum effort.

District Judge H. Patrick Weir of Dickinson brought the practice up short recently when he rejected a plea agreement involving a 41-year-old-man who had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl.

The prosecutors and the accused offered the court a deal proposing a sentence of five years in prison and five years probation. The judge said "no deal" and for good reason.

The accused had a violent criminal history and had shown no remorse. Therefore, the judge wanted a sentence of at least 10 years in prison and 10 years probation. With this bad news, the accused withdrew his guilty plea and his case will go to trial.

There is no doubt that plea agreements have been refused by other judges in the past. However, by his firm and public refusal to go along with a questionable plea, Judge Weir has helped to draw attention to a practice that may be overused.

The root of the problem is resources. As taxpayers, we demand security but refuse to pay for it. Consequently, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are hampered by shoestring budgets while we complain about villains going through revolving doors greased by plea bargaining.

The ultimate result is that the practice takes a certain amount of justice out of the criminal justice system.

Lloyd Omdahl served as North Dakota's 34th Lieutenant Governor of the state from 1987 to 1992. Previously he was a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota. He continues to write columns for newspapers across the state of North Dakota.

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