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A Deal with the Devil: What It Truly Costs to Make a Plea Deal

A Deal with the Devil: What It Truly Costs to Make a Plea Deal

Imagine you’ve been charged with a crime and are sitting in jail awaiting your trial. Your bail is set to $5,000, leaving you with three options — if you’re rich and you pay the money up front, you can get out of jail and wait for your court date from the comfort of your home. If you’re poor and can’t afford the bail, you sit in jail and await your trial which could be months or even years away.

Then there’s the third option — take a plea deal.

A plea deal is an arrangement between the prosecutor and defendant to resolve a case without going to trial. Often, this means prosecutors have lightened caseloads and judges are better able to manage overcrowded courtrooms. It also gives defendants the opportunity to accept a less severe sentence for a less serious charge and avoid the costs that come with lengthy trials. But these so-called deals come with strings attached. A short Brave New Films video entitled “A Deal With the Devil” delves deeper into the system of plea deals:

For those sitting in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay their bail, the need for freedom grows more desperate with every passing day. In many cases, defendants who cannot afford to pay bail will be pressured into taking plea deals; instead of exercising their right to a fair trial, the defendants will accept the deal just to get out of prison or avoid the potential of a harsher sentence.

In A Deal with the Devil, Charles explains why he reluctantly took a plea deal instead of going to trial.

I think they make the bail steeper and steeper so you can’t bail out…they know most guys want to get out of there, they know it’s overcrowded, it’s diseased…so a lot of guys take plea deals.

Charles’ bail was set at $200,000, which is an incredibly steep price for most Americans. The bond alone could have cost Charles $20,000 — money he would never get back from a bail bondsman no matter the outcome of his case. In the face of that excessive amount of money, taking a plea deal can seem like the only possible option for defendants, especially when told by prosecutors that the alternative — a guilty ruling at trial — could result in even more devastating outcomes.

Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Curls advises his clients that a guilty plea remains on a person’s record and can follow people around for the rest of their lives. “Plea deals always come back to bite,” he explains. “You’re not going to get loans, can’t vote, you can’t even get on a game show with a felony.” In fact, people convicted of felonies commonly lose more than just voting rights or ability to borrow money — they can lose educational, parental, travel, housing, and employment rights as well.

Curls knows that money bail turns plea deals into a ‘deal with the devil’ in a system that disproportionately impacts low-income people, especially those in communities of color.

“[In the case that] a person has committed a crime and gets an opportunity to accept responsibility for that crime without going to trial, incurring more time and expense, and possibly being exposed to a harsher sentence, a plea deal can be a good thing,” explains Curls. “The problem is when a plea deal is a byproduct of someone just wanting to get out of jail… I can either stay in custody for another 4 months and fight the case with no guarantee that I’ll win, or I could get out in one month and try to get on with my life.”

For many people, the high cost of taking a plea deal is worth getting out of jail and going home, whether or not they are guilty. Because of the pressures put on a person by impossible bail amounts, plea deals can end up subverting a person’s right to a fair trial and presumption of innocence. It’s clear that the money bail system exacerbates this problem and only comprehensive reform at all levels of the criminal justice system can end this injustice.

To learn more about plea deals and how they affect vulnerable Americans, watch “A Deal with the Devil”[1] and share it with your friends.

(Are you an educator, activist, or organizer? Do you care deeply about social justice issues and education? Join Brave New Films’ movement to end money bail once and for all by visiting to register for a free screening and education guide for your classroom, faith organization, or community!)

Mehak Anwar was born in Karachi, Pakistan, raised in the Pacific Northwest, and completed her undergraduate degree in Boston, Massachusetts where she studied journalism and feminist theory. She has published writing on intersectional feminism, LGBTQIA rights, food insecurity, gun control, institutionalized racism, and media representation of marginalized communities. Outside of her formal studies and published work, Mehak has spent time researching climate change and environmental justice, indigenous rights, mass incarceration, and public housing. In her free time, she can be found in a radical bookstore, hiking with a friend, or tending to her plants. Mehak is a 2017 Outreach fellow at Brave New Films. The views and opinions expressed in this article are hers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Like racist police, racist policies need to go

Like racist police, racist policies need to go

Like Vida B. Johnson, I was outraged at the t-shirt worn by a Metropolitan Police Department officer that glorified the use of “jump-out cars” and contained a common white supremacist symbol. Police and political leadership should actively identify and root out white supremacists from police departments throughout the country. At the same time, community leaders should examine policies that have disparate racial impacts in communities of color, even though those policies are facially color-blind or race neutral. Even without the taint of explicit white supremacy on the MPD officer’s t-shirt, the policy that produces jump-out cars in D.C. is racially problematic by itself. Although not publicly discussed as “jump outs,” the D.C. Metropolitan Police has been taken to court over the heavy-handed tactics associated with its Gun Recovery Unit (GRU).

The GRU stops and searches individuals — usually young black men in Southeast D.C. — to look for weapons. (In D.C., with very few exceptions, it is illegal to carry a concealed firearm outside of the home, so the possession of a weapon concealed on a person is presumptively criminal.)[1] Under Terry v. Ohio (1968), an officer must have an articulable suspicion a crime is ongoing or about to be committed before he can stop, question, and pat an individual down to check for weapons or, alternatively, the officer may search a person if he gains consent from the individual to be searched. Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the legitimacy of that framework in practice, placing the GRU’s standard operating procedure not in the poorer, mostly black neighborhoods of Southeast D.C., but in a posh, predominantly white residential and shopping district:

[T]ry to imagine this scene in Georgetown. Would residents of that neighborhood maintain there was no pressure to comply, if the District’s police officers patrolled Prospect Street in tactical gear, questioning each person they encountered about whether they were carrying an illegal firearm? Nothing about the Gun Recovery Unit’s modus operandi is designed to convey a message that compliance is not required.

With the guise of voluntary consent stripped away, the reality of the District’s regime is revealed. It is a rolling roadblock that sweeps citizens up at random and subjects them to undesired police interactions culminating in a search of their persons and effects.[2]

Although Judge Brown did not mention race at all in her concurring opinion, the de facto racial segregation that separates the two places is clear to anyone familiar with D.C. neighborhoods. If this were tried in a white neighborhood, she implies, the practice would be abandoned and the department might even be sued.

And while the defenders of the practice would argue that Georgetown does not face the homicide and violent crimes affecting Southeast, it’s too easy to justify separate and unequal policing under the guise of solving a legitimate policy problem. While it is entirely fair to say that more crime justifies a greater police presence in a segment of a city, that crime does not — or, rather, should not obviate the constitutional rights of the people who live in that area. If statistics showed there were more child pornography producers and distributors in white neighborhoods, the police would not be justified going door to door to intimidate presumptively innocent residents to get consent to search their computers to combat child pornography. Residents would be outraged to be treated as criminal suspects and intimidated to surrender their rights. Yet the GRU eviscerates Fourth Amendment protections for young black men walking down the street as policy, irrespective of any racial prejudice by the officers.

This sort of practice is not just a D.C. problem. Investigatory traffic stops are used across the country in order to find contraband and cash in cars travelling on American roads. Although traffic stops are a regular occurrence, research indicates there are two different types of stops and the difference between those stops has broad racial implications. In their book, Pulled Over, Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald Haider-Markel use data to show that black motorists in Kansas are more likely to be stopped by police for pretextual causes — minor infractions with little or no public safety implications, like a burned-out license plate light — with the ultimate goal of being searched for contraband.

The respondents who were pulled over and subjected to the searches reported that, for the most part, the officers were polite and professional throughout the stops. The professionalism that has been stressed to officers in recent years to decrease hostility in police encounters does not overcome the drivers’ perceived illegitimacy of the stop. Thus, focusing on individual officers and possible bias misses the broader impact of the policy on local minority communities. Findings imply that these pretextual investigatory stops of minorities have negative effects on minority communities such as reducing respect for police and civic institutions as well as undermining the drivers’ sense of equal place in society, regardless of how polite the officers were. Sometimes the policies themselves should be examined and discontinued.

While it is crucially important that racist officers are found out and dismissed from their police departments, some of the more pervasive problems affecting minority communities are the policies officers are asked to carry out. Dubbing today’s criminal justice system “The New Jim Crow” may be a helpful comparison to understand the scale of the damage done to African-American communities by mass incarceration, but I fear of over-reliance on the narrative of an intentional suppression of black people by malicious police and profiteers. The focus on explicit racism threatens to overshadow racially biased policies that can erode the fabric of the communities police are trying to protect. Too often in law enforcement, and government generally, the damage done to marginalized communities stem not from malice, but the unintended consequences of well-intended policies.


[1] A recent decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit allowed the District to start issuing concealed carry permits to all qualified applicants, but this is likely to be stayed and held over until an appeals court hearing and decision en banc or on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. For the purposes of this post and as a matter of reality for District residents and police, the presumptive criminality of concealed possession is accurate.

[2] United States v. Gross, 784 F.3d 784 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (Brown, J. concurring at 790–791).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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Charges dropped against black teenager, but no explanation for how she was mistaken for man wielding machete

Charges dropped against black teenager, but no explanation for how she was mistaken for man wielding machete

Tatyana Hargrove is not a 5’10”, 170 pound bald man with a goatee.

But that didn’t stop Hargrove, a 5’2″, 120 pound 19-year-old, from being arrested by Bakersfield, California police on June 18, even though the person cops were looking for was older, taller, heavier, and a different gender.

The only similarity between Hargrove and the man police were looking for, Douglas Washington, is that they are both black. Washington was later arrested.

Hargrove was charged with resisting arrest and use of force against a police officer even after officers realized she was not the man they were looking for. The Bakersfield NAACP took up Hargrove’s cause, generating national attention.

Hargrove’s ordeal ended earlier this month when, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green announced that her office was dropping all charges.

Green acknowledged law enforcement would need to repair trust with the minority community, with many outraged over what Hargrove had been put through.

However, Green defended the officers who arrested Hargrove, saying they only knew they were looking for a black man with a backpack. None the officers will face charges or any discipline.

In July Hargrove told her story on Facebook. According to Hargrove, she was riding her bike when she stopped to get a drink of water and get out of the 100 degree heat for a few minutes. Suddenly she was surrounded by three police cars, and one police officer was pointing a gun at her.

According to the Washington Post “What followed, according to both Hargrove and police, was a case of mistaken identity and an altercation in which police punched Hargrove in the mouth, unleashed a police K-9 dog on her and arrested her.”

Officer were actually looking for Washington, who’d threatened several people with a machete at a nearby grocery store. But police believed Hargrove was a man, and suspected the machete was in her backpack, according to a police report.

“She appeared to be a male and matched the description of the suspect that had brandished the machete and was also within the same complex the suspect had fled to,” wrote the arresting officer.

Police say Hargrove resisted arrest, and department officials have said officers used the appropriate use of force on Hargrove.

Hargrove, in her Facebook account of what happened, denies resisting arrest or disobeying the instruction of police. She said police punched her and threw her on the ground before turning a police dog on her.

It is unclear why police thought Hargrove matched the description of the suspect.

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