The sentencing of Wildstein calls our justice system in question

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.

Comments (2)

  1. ken bank

    So what is the alternative? When I worked as a probation/parole officer some years ago, almost all my cases were poor people convicted of non-violent petty offenses. I conducted interviews with all of them, and my conclusion was that nearly all of them were guilty to some degree. Our criminal justice system is clogged bad enough as it is, and our jails overcrowded and under-equipped. Without plea bargaining, the system would collapse under its own weight. The US already has the world’s largest number of people in jail and it keeps going up. I’ve always been in favor of keeping non-violent offenders, be they rich or poor, out of jail. We should be looking at reducing the number of inmates, not increasing them, and there are many practical alternatives to incarceration, especially with new technologies. As to David Wildstein, he no longer poses a clear and present danger to society, and should not be incarcerated. He does deserve to be punished for his past deeds, and an appropriate assignment for community service would be as a street cleaner in Fort Lee. That would be justice served, IMHO.

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  2. Bill Orr (Post author)

    What is the alternative? As you indicate there are alternatives to incarceration, and we should be looking at reducing the number of inmates. Too many are there for petty charges (minor drug infractions), mental health problems, and lack of education, affordable housing, jobs and drug treatment facilities. In my prior job I visited prisons and jails where there was violence, callous correction officers, and a lack of rehabilitation and social services, all of which leads to recidivism. (A New Jerseyan arrested in NYC goes to Rikers, which I have visited twice recently. It’s a third-world hell hole.) Also, the charges proffered to arrested people are generally exaggerated and some unprovable – all designed to frighten the individual into accepting a plea. Reasonable charges would be better.

    There is too much of a premium on getting one person to confess in order to convict others as opposed to spending time and effort to document what happened so as to sentence all involved in an equitable fashion. This is particularly the case with Bridgegate where the mastermind orchestrator gets no time in jail, but Baroni gets 24 months and Kelly gets 18 months.

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