David Wildstein who orchestrated the Bridgegate scheme was sentenced on Wednesday to three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, fined $10,000 and prohibited from seeking or accepting employment with any government agency. He was facing up to 27 months in prison.
There must be a better way to administer justice. Our system relies too much on plea bargaining which often disadvantages the poor and benefits those who can afford a good lawyer.
The prosecutors yesterday wrote to the judge asking that Wildstein not be sentenced to prison time. They said, ”Put simply, were it not for Wildstein’s decision to cooperate and disclose the true nature of the lane reductions, there likely would have been no prosecutions related to the bridge scheme.”
That statement has an element of truth. It’s also true that prosecutors threatened Wildstein with a much heavier penalty, leaving him little choice and a great opportunity to escape more years in jail. Prosecutors are also aware when making sentencing recommendations to a judge, that if they don’t adhere closely to the plea agreement and even offer an added benefit to people like Wildstein they won’t be able to get other wary individuals to incriminate the higher ups.
In our busy legal system pleas have become the de facto mode of operating. To avoid a time-consuming and expensive trial and the high costs of fully investigating and documenting the charges, prosecutors offer to reduce the charges if the individual pleads guilty. That is what happened with Wildstein. He pleaded guilty, cooperated with the prosecutors, faced no trial, and has just received his sentence.
Far too many who are in jail are innocent but can’t afford an expensive lawyer and so will agree to a plea because they are afraid of the longer sentence they might otherwise receive. Everyone is entitled to a trial, but few go to court and some instead rot in jail.
Wildstein knew he was guilty, could afford a lawyer and cooperated. He hit the jackpot. He doe not even have to spend time in jail.