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Lloyd Omdahl, Published April 05 2010

Omdahl: District Judge Weir raises red flag over plea bargains

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.

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:

District Judge H. Patrick Weir of Dickinson, N.D., 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 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.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com