Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Juvenile Justice

The 26 November 2008 article discusses the Juvenile Justice system in Pennsylvania in light of the news stories of the Arizona boy who allegedly killed his father.


Anonymous said...

mr. legg just wandering if the punishment for something is more if the person fights the charges that they did some thing rather than if they addmit it another words if a person did some thing that would normally result in a fine for a first time offender and they fight the fact that they did not do what they are accused of doing. and the judge would find that they did in fact do this is the fine higher or could there be more of a punishment for this. this is in reference to a misturminor charge of furnishing to a minor.

Jason Legg said...

A defendant has a constitution right to a trial. A defendant cannot be punished for exercising the constitutional right to a trial. Therefore, there is no added penalty for a person who "fights the charges" and loses.

On the other hand, whenever there is a full trial, the court gets a better understanding of the case, including getting to know the victims, reviewing all of the facts, and hearing all of the evidence. When there is a guilty plea, the court does not have that type of knowledge or familiarity with the case. Thus, a trial also provides the court with the chance to really understand the case in its totality.

Part of this familiarity may involve assessing the defendant's own credibility. For instance, if a defendant testifies, and the court is convinced that the defendant did so falsely, this fact will likely be considered by the court at the time of sentencing.

Oftentimes, defense counsel argue to the court that their client accepted responsibility in entering into a guilty plea, and that such cooperation should be considered by the court as a mitigating factor. To what degree any particular sentencing court mitigates a sentence based upon cooperation of the defendant likely depends upon the individual judge.

Plea agreements generally lead to some of the charges being dismissed as well, while a trial may result in a conviction to many more offenses than were offered in the plea. This could obviously also change the ultimate sentence in a particular case as there are more things to be sentenced on.

In the end, a defendant has the right to a trial - and there is no added punishment for exercising that right. There are collateral consequences that occur in the event that a conviction is obtained after trial which could result in a greater penalty than the defendant would have received if he had entered a guilty plea.

Sarah Cain said...

Is it legal to accept a guilty plea from somehow who is on mind-altering medications, like in the case of Kurt Danysh?

Jason Legg said...

Every guilty plea must be given knowingly, freely and voluntarily. To assure that a defendant's rights are protected, the Rules require the court to conduct a colloquy, where the defendant's rights are explained to him.

In Susquehanna County, we have a variety of safeguyards to assure that a defendant is knowingly entering a plea. First, there is a written plea agreement that spells out the proposed plea and any promises made in return for a guilty plea. The defendant must sign the agreement prior to enter a plea.

Second, there is a written change of plea, where the defendant acknowledges that he is changing his plea from not guilty to guilty pursuant to the terms of the plea agreement.

Third, there is a written guilty plea colloquy which explains the defendant's rights to him in great detail. The defendant initials every individiaul numbered paragraph that explains his rights to verify that he has read and understands his rights. The defendant also signs the written colloquy at the end, again indicating his understanding of this rights, and his attorney also signs the written colloquy verifying that he or she has explained the rights to the defendant and the defendant understands those rights.

Fourth, there is an oral colloquy, where the judge, on the record, again reviews all of the defendant's rights in open court, and the defendant acknowledges, on the record, that he understands his rights.

In both the written colloquy and the oral colloquy, a defendant is asked about any medications that he may be taking, and whether those medications have any effect on his ability to understand the proceedings.

I would estimate that well over half of all defendant's are on some form of medication -- and I have never seen a case where such medication caused a defendant to lack the capacity to enter a guilty plea. There have been occasions when defendant's have appeared in court intoxicated, and, on those occasions, the pleas were rescheduled.

Finally, it is a common practice for defendant's to allege, after entering a guilty plea, that they did not know what they were doing. As you can see, the system is filled with safeguards to assure that this does not happen.

If a defendant asserts that his plea was involuntary as a result of medication, he would need to procure an expert to testify that the medication eliminated the defendant's ability to understand the proceedings and enter a voluntary plea.

After ten years of prosecuting thousands of cases, I have never seen such a challenge succeed.

Jason Legg