Richard’s Rant: The High Cost of Lawyers

A weekly raving about the rampant injustices the criminal “justice” community faces. This week, Richard addresses the steep price of justice (why is good legal representation a privilege, not a right?)

April 12, 2021

By Richard Bronson | Watch this Rant live, only on Tha Yard

When I was indicted around 20 years ago, I was lucky because I connected with a good lawyer. When we met, my first question was, “do I have a chance of getting off?” There are many unscrupulous lawyers out there who prey on people who are going through the worst experience of their lives and will encourage their clients to drain their bank account and take their case to trial.

My lawyer gave it to me straight: I’d have no chance if I went to trial, and when I was found guilty, the judge would throw the book at me for taking up the court’s time. Instead, he urged me to a) provide the prosecutor with information about other people I know who were breaking laws, and b) allow him to negotiate the best plea deal he could get me.

It’s true that I knew people who were doing bad things, but there was no way I was going to rat out others to save my own skin. I already felt ashamed about my conduct — yes, I was definitely guilty — and I knew I’d never forgive myself for being a snitch.

But I did follow his advice and plead guilty, and he quickly negotiated a reasonable deal, which saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars.

My case was federal, like our guest Michael’s. I later learned that 98% of all federal cases are plead out — only 2% ever see a day in trial. Why are so many plead out? First of all, the feds are known for taking years putting together a case before someone is indicted. They’ll spend millions of dollars to indict someone charged with stealing $100k. So they have things wrapped up pretty well.

But the bigger reason why so many people forgo going to trial is they’ve heard about cases like Michael’s. Michael’s partner in the drug business agreed to cooperate and gave up his right to a jury trial, in exchange for receiving a lighter sentence. In his case, he received 4 years and served a little more than 2, versus his partner Michael, who received 45 years — 11 times as much time.

Now, I don’t know the particulars of Michael’s case, but I assume he felt like he had some kind of defense to go through a jury trial.

Federal cases tend to be bigger cases, with more money involved. State and county cases can be much, much smaller, maybe a couple of thousands of dollars involved. Very often, defendants can’t afford to hire a good, dedicated attorney, so the court appoints a public defender to handle the case. Public defenders may have hundreds of cases they’re handling at the same time, so they can’t possibly provide the same level of services my attorney gave me. So it’s not surprising that, regardless of the particulars of the case, up to and including whether or not the defendant is actually guilty, the public defendant will push his or her client to accept a plea deal, just to keep the wheels of justice moving. And the young Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the case is also pushing this outcome, by threatening the defendant — who once again, has not yet been found guilty of anything at this point — that if they insist on a jury trial, they will seek the harshest sentences allowable under the law.

And if that pressure to cop a plea wasn’t enough, keep in mind that this defendant has not made bail, and has been caged in some awful county lock-up, sometimes waiting years for a trial date. At a certain point, the pressure to play ball becomes too much, and even an innocent person will succumb to the pressure and take a deal.

What I’m describing is not a rare occurrence — it’s how things work in our criminal justice system. We’d all like to think that at the top of the system is a wise judge who takes into account not only that one time when someone makes a big mistake and breaks the law, but all of a person’s life — his ties to the community, his devotion as a father or mother, his religious practice. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, the criminal justice system is managed by 28 year old Assistant District Attorneys or US Attorneys who have dreams of either running for mayor or landing a cushy job as a partner at a white shoe law firm, pulling down a million dollars a year. He’s someone trying to make his or her bones by showing off a one-sided conviction record that proves how tough they are on time.

There’s very little justice in the criminal justice system when expediency and raging ambition determine the future of defendants and their families and their communities. There’s very little justice in the presumption of guilty unless proven innocent. And there’s even less justice when those that suffer are overwhelmingly economically disadvantaged people of color.

That’s my rant and I’m sticking with it.

Changing the way the 70 million Americans with criminal records find jobs.