“He looks young,” the judge said.
November 24, 2013 6:01 AM   Subscribe

Life Times Six: How Travion Blount got 118 years and six life sentences for a robbery. In 2006, 15 year old Travion Blount, along with two 18 year olds, robbed a group of teenagers at a party at gunpoint. No shots were fired. The two older boys accepted sentences of 10 and 13 years in exchange for a guilty plea. Blount plead guilty but refused to accept a sentence of 18 years. He went to trial, was found guilty, and received a mandatory 118 years in prison, without parole. On top of that, he received six life sentences. His only chance to exit prison alive is through geriatric release at age 60. He will most likely die behind bars. posted by roomthreeseventeen (144 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not that it matters, but why was Trayvion's plea offer the longest of the three when he wasn't the one doing the pistol whipping?
posted by dobbs at 6:23 AM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, if anyone could just turn down the prosecutor's offer and get a fair trial, the courtrooms would be packed. And we wouldn't want that, would we?
posted by miyabo at 6:33 AM on November 24, 2013 [47 favorites]


From the ACLU article:

"And what kind of system have we created when the only way to avoid such an extreme sentence is to waive our Constitutional right to trial?"

Maybe the US could send some folks over to Sweden, because their justice/prison system is on the rocks.
posted by sneebler at 6:43 AM on November 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


To be honest, even the plea bargains seem far too severe for what these guys actually did.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:52 AM on November 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


While the people who presided over massive control fraud and drug dealer money laundering walk free. Why do people think that the legal system is bullshit? This is why.
posted by wuwei at 6:53 AM on November 24, 2013 [17 favorites]


That is sickening.

What really strikes me is not that he is a juvenile, which seems almost beside the point. The sentence wouldn't be any fairer if he were a year older. What's awful is this:

In November 2007, Judge Charles Griffith accepted Blount’s pleas of not guilty, but he questioned whether the defendant knew the risks. In a sidebar at the bench, away from the jury and Blount, Griffith raised the issue to lawyers. “This is an incredible gamble, this trial is,” Griffith told Coggeshall and prosecutor Amy Cross.

The fact that everyone involved - the judge, and the lawyers for both sides - knew that the trial was a "risk" because if he went to trial, the outcome would be unjust. No one involved thought that six life sentences is a just punishment for armed robbery; at that point, Travion was being punished not for his crime but for refusing the prosecutor's deal. It turns the entire process into a farce.

I mean, if I get busted for marijuana, and the prosecutor tells me I can go to trial, but if I lose, I'll face the death penalty - and that nobody really wants me to get the death penalty, so I might as well just accept a deal and pay this $20 fine instead - have I been offered the right to a fair trial in any meaningful sense of the word? I just can't believe there isn't some kind of constitutional challenge available here, and I hope it makes its way up the courts.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:55 AM on November 24, 2013 [117 favorites]


the thing that astounds is how people will still support this. or say that this a just one strange occurrence. and they'll try to come up w some rationale that doesn't make them sound racist and/or classist.

that is the thing that needs to change so that the laws can change.
posted by sio42 at 6:58 AM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


NB: don't read the comments, as always.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:58 AM on November 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am no longer in the slightest bit surprised by what passes for justice in your country; saddened frequently, yes, but surprised, No.
posted by adamvasco at 7:00 AM on November 24, 2013 [15 favorites]


NB: don't read the comments, as always.

I weary of this advice. Read all comments and make up your own mind. Just like here.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:05 AM on November 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


The juror who was a wife of a cop sounds like she crawled right out of the comments section of the article, saying the defendant got what he deserved because "he was a bad boy".
posted by item at 7:07 AM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


"And what kind of system have we created when the only way to avoid such an extreme sentence is to waive our Constitutional right to trial?"

Maybe the US could send some folks over to Sweden, because their justice/prison system is on the rocks.
posted by sneebler at 6:43 AM on November 24
Man, Sweden is so awesome.
posted by Jacob Knitig at 7:11 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Apart from the revenge aspect of it, I never understood the logic of the harsh-punishment-as-deterrent crowd. If the punishment for armed robbery is already life without parole, why wouldn't you shoot the victim while you're at it to get rid of a troublesome witness? It's not going to get much worse anyway.
posted by brokkr at 7:12 AM on November 24, 2013 [27 favorites]


Many of the people who believe that the sentence was just seem to be under the impression that if it was overturned the defendant would walk. Not so. Even his lawyer expects him to do time, and that is proper considering his crime, but not life.
posted by TDavis at 7:16 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


This type of extreme punishment would probably be handed down more often if most defendants didn't understand their right to a trial isn't a meaningful one, given the disparity between the sentence attached to a guilty verdict versus the plea bargain on offer. Blount's co-defendants understood that, and it's not clear why Blount didn't. dobb's question might have something to do with it--why was the plea deal offered to Blount so much more onerous than the ones his co-defendants accepted. My guess is that Downing and Nichols made their deals first--so the state didn't need Blount to secure a conviction against them, and had the co-defendants on hand to virtually ensure a guilty verdict if Blount went to trial.
posted by layceepee at 7:31 AM on November 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


layceepee, I am basing this on NOTHING, but I wonder if Blount might have a learning disorder. Lots of things in the article (aversion to speaking in class, lots of truancy, repeating 6th grade three times) point to symptoms that often lead to some sort of learning disorder.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:37 AM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Blount's co-defendants understood that, and it's not clear why Blount didn't.

Probably because they wanted Blount to serve 18 years even on a plea bargain.
posted by Talez at 7:40 AM on November 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


Coggeshall advised Blount repeatedly to take a deal. His client listened politely and said little. At one hearing, Coggeshall persuaded a judge to allow Blount’s parents to speak with him in lockup, hoping they could convince him.

“I had more heart-to-heart talks with that client than any other client,” Coggeshall said. “Everybody could see the train coming. Everybody. Except him.”
While feel Virginia is wrong in having life sentences for these sorts of things and especially wrong to have abolished parole, the part this young man's actions played in getting us here should also be discussed.

First, it has to be pointed out that when you enter into a conspiracy to commit a crime, you are taking a giant risk--if there are 30-40 people in a house and you participate in taking money from all of them, you are commiting 30-40 acts of armed robbery. That's going to create a lot of charges, which means many, many years of incarceration if you are caught. And 40 victims means they are going to have a lot of witnesses.

Second, if you use a gun, you are going to get a lot of sentence enhancements. And it should be that way. A gun can kill in an instant with little risk to the holder.

Third, our system of justice offers the right of trial and puts the burden on the government. When your lawyer says that the evidence against you is likely to convict and you are going to get a large sentence that may put you behind bars, you should listen to your lawyer. The fact that you did the crime means you put yourself in the position of being in this situation.

I do think the 18 year sentence makes a lot of sense for a person who willingly commits the robbery of dozens of people with a gun. Being robbed with a gun is traumatic, you're suddenly rendered helpless and in fear for your life. Persons who do that to one person should be jailed for several years. Persons who conspire to do it against 20-40 people should get a lot of years. There should be punishment--what happened doesn't mean the only thing we should do is try to make the person become better and not do it again. That would be putting the criminal's needs above those of the victims and society.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:42 AM on November 24, 2013 [20 favorites]


My guess is that Downing and Nichols made their deals first--so the state didn't need Blount to secure a conviction against them, and had the co-defendants on hand to virtually ensure a guilty verdict if Blount went to trial.

It is right that the first person to admit to a crime in a conspiracy should get a lesser sentence. That way, those who commit crimes are more likely to plead out. And the state has a very powerful interest in stopping crimes engaged in by multiple people because people acting in concert can commit larger crimes.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:46 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do think the 18 year sentence makes a lot of sense for a person who willingly commits the robbery of dozens of people with a gun.

But it doesn't, at all. You're talking about 1/4 of this young man's life, probably, given average life expectancy. And it does no good. Once he is out of prison, assuming he gets out at 36, say, he has a hard time finding employment, housing, etc. We make it INCREDIBLY hard for people who serve any time to live productively in society. And for what? He was a child who ended up in a bad place.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:47 AM on November 24, 2013 [13 favorites]


For a teenager, what is the difference between 18 years and life? He had nothing to lose by going to trial.

Plea deals should be illegal. I know they serve a purpose, and I know that in a just and fair system with rational actors they reduce the load on the courts and can provide better outcomes. But the potential for abuse is too high if you give the state a way to avoid its obligations with regard to due process.
posted by Nothing at 7:47 AM on November 24, 2013 [11 favorites]


But it doesn't, at all. You're talking about 1/4 of this young man's life, probably, given average life expectancy. And it does no good. Once he is out of prison, assuming he gets out at 36, say, he has a hard time finding employment, housing, etc.

He could have avoided this by not robbing 30 people at gunpoint. Ever been robbed at gunpoint? Seen one citizen shoot another? It sucks. And its both a severe moral wrong and actual evil to do that to another person. And that is what this kid did. Robbed 30 people at gun point as part of a conspiracy.

The problem is the lack of parole in Virginia.

As for it being hard after jail, that is a problem that must be addressed. But risking the lives of thirty people with a gun? You should do 18 years for that.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:51 AM on November 24, 2013 [11 favorites]


For a teenager, what is the difference between 18 years and life? He had nothing to lose by going to trial.

Except 50+ years of his life. He had a lot to lose.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:52 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


But risking the lives of thirty people with a gun? You should do 18 years for that.

Isn't it 12 people? So you think he should do about 7 years for that?
posted by bleep-blop at 7:54 AM on November 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


Plea deals should be illegal. I know they serve a purpose, and I know that in a just and fair system with rational actors they reduce the load on the courts and can provide better outcomes. But the potential for abuse is too high if you give the state a way to avoid its obligations with regard to due process.

I don't see how this is relevant to Blount's case. Absent the option for a plea deal, the state would have been forced to take Blount to trial--which is what they did. Perhaps the difference is that Virginia wouldn't have been able to use plea bargains as leverage to get testimony from his co-defendants, but given the number of eye-witness victims in this case, I think a conviction would have been likely without them.
posted by layceepee at 7:55 AM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Problem 1 is that, regardless of the objective appropriateness of an 18-year sentence, handing this kid a plea bargain for 18 years while people who did the same things plus assault got a more lenient deal was practically begging him to reject it. It makes no sense.

Problem 2 is that while an 18 year sentence is at the very least in the ballpark of a rational penalty, life times six plus 118 years is fucking crazypants.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:56 AM on November 24, 2013 [25 favorites]


Any of his victims -- none of whom the article spared a moment's thought -- could have lawfully killed him in self defense; anything less than the needle is mercy. 18 years was a more generous offer than he deserved.
posted by MattD at 7:56 AM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Any of his victims -- none of whom the article spared a moment's thought -- could have lawfully killed him in self defense; anything less than the needle is mercy.

Here's the thing. The two men who committed the crime with him, both of whom were ADULTS and not children, were offered 10 and 13 years, and one of them pistol-whipped a victim. Blount touched no one.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:58 AM on November 24, 2013 [25 favorites]


First, it has to be pointed out that when you enter into a conspiracy to commit a crime, you are taking a giant risk--if there are 30-40 people in a house and you participate in taking money from all of them, you are commiting 30-40 acts of armed robbery. That's going to create a lot of charges, which means many, many years of incarceration if you are caught. And 40 victims means they are going to have a lot of witnesses.

I am also curious as to why he didn't consult his attorney before committing an armed robbery. Why, I consult my attorney on a regular basis in matters such as purchasing my house, you'd have to be crazy to not consult your attorney when you're actually planning to break the law!
posted by indubitable at 8:01 AM on November 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


Any of his victims -- none of whom the article spared a moment's thought -- could have lawfully killed him in self defense; anything less than the needle is mercy. 18 years was a more generous offer than he deserved.

I disagree. The sentence, given the circumstances, was far too harsh. The mandatory minimums and lack of parole are the problems and need to be addressed.

I say this as a guy who has to write a victim impact statement in the next month to determine how much time the guy who robbed me at gunpoint is going to do.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:18 AM on November 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


anything less than the needle is mercy

Ladies and Gentlemen, The United States of America.

How does Columbia sleep at night? Well since this is America probably prescription sleeping pills.
posted by Talez at 8:19 AM on November 24, 2013 [28 favorites]


the thing that astounds is how people will still support this. or say that this a just one strange occurrence. and they'll try to come up w some rationale that doesn't make them sound racist and/or classist.

I don't mean to minimize your claims, or the situation, but thank your lucky stars we live in a country with an open appeals process and the eighth amendment. When you get old enough and see a lot of things, you realize that for better or for worse, our judicial system is one of the few pillars of civilization left that distinguishes us from utter chaos.

Legal philosophy includes voices that would defend the outcome of this trial that are not strictly speaking "classist" or "racist" and that really is part of the problem. Having said that, this looks like a perfect storm of a situation, the result of so many systemic social and judicial problems that you worry it might be easier to lock this kid up and throw away the key. The post is a little thin on details, or maybe I'm just not seeing them.
posted by phaedon at 8:24 AM on November 24, 2013


the thing that astounds is how people will still support this. or say that this a just one strange occurrence. and they'll try to come up w some rationale that doesn't make them sound racist and/or classist.

Really? A gang of men enters a home with guns and robs at least a dozen victims at gun point? Those persons should suffer sever repercussions.

As for no plea bargains, this would be a case with 3 people going to jail for life, not one. And if he took the plea bargain, none of them would have.

I guess I think its important that we acknowledge this young man's agency in this matter. Millions of Americans in his exact socioeconomic position do not rob parties with at least a dozen people in attendance. And they don't go to jail. This is not to say that those factors don't play a role. But completely ignoring his agency doesn't help anyone figure out what the larger choices our society should make. Virginia is a serious, overly law-and-order state (unless you want to buy a gun). Changes need to be made.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:33 AM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


I am also curious as to why he didn't consult his attorney before committing an armed robbery. Why, I consult my attorney on a regular basis in matters such as purchasing my house, you'd have to be crazy to not consult your attorney when you're actually planning to break the law!

I tried to figure out how to sincerely phrase this as actual useful advice that a teenager would benefit from, along the lines of "what would your mother say" or WWJD, but it all falls down in the face of knowing that teenagers regularly fail to plan far enough in the future to predict even simple negative outcomes, much less complex ones. Younger people in general don't accurately predict consequences they haven't previously experienced, which is why having a strong figure in your life inflicting appropriate consequences on you as you make choices that harm other people is such an important part of growing up. Factor in a potential learning disability, and how do you make those consequences stick as a deterrent? This whole thing is depressing.
posted by davejay at 8:35 AM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


As for no plea bargains, this would be a case with 3 people going to jail for life, not one. And if he took the plea bargain, none of them would have.


If you can only get a fair sentence by waiving your right to a trial, the idea of a "fair trial" has no meaning.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:36 AM on November 24, 2013 [50 favorites]


I would have much less of an issue with the US's justice system if our penal system were not created from weaponized evil.
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:39 AM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ironmouth: " That would be putting the criminal's needs above those of the victims and society."

PROTIP: The criminal IS (whether you like it or not, and until actually convicted) a MEMBER OF SOCIETY.

I get so tired of lawyers always justifying harsh punishments and dubious outcomes because "the law says it", never questioning the rightness or justice of a sentence. Legalistic bullshit is what it is. And though in this case I am referring to your comments, I do mean this on a much larger level, to personal friends of mine who are also lawyers and who continue to seemingly excuse "the system" for all its crimes. It's like law school is an indoctrination center to justify the system, and only in rare occurrences, those who take up the most noteworthy civil-rights cases, or those who understand their role to defend the most heinous crimes (of non-state actors) understand the need for a system that works for the defendant as well as the prosecution.

UGH.
posted by symbioid at 8:47 AM on November 24, 2013 [15 favorites]


Really? A gang of men enters a home with guns and robs at least a dozen victims at gun point? Those persons should suffer sever repercussions.

What does this attitude really solve? It satisfies bloodlust, some misguided sense of justice and that's about it. Throw the victims away, taxpayers get to pay for them to die behind bars and the matter is solved, right? Yet the breeding grounds for these crimes, the hopelessness, the trapped feeling, the lack of access to tools to express any ambition whatsoever that the underclass has. It still remains, creating yet more meat for the grinder.

We need to stop and say "well fuck, why is this happening? Why are we having to put away three and a half times as many citizens per capita as the next Western nation?" and then FIX THE CONDITIONS WHICH BREED THE BEHAVIOUR IN THE FIRST PLACE. Every time we lock someone up and throw away the key without looking at the deeper implications we do a disservice to future victims. Which then creates current victims like yourself. That then demand vengeance/justice and the cycle begins anew. It's so fucking stupid how we sit on this roundabout being driven faster and faster by the legislature making the stick ever bigger in an effort to teach criminals a "lesson" without looking at why we stay on this roundabout to begin with.

And that's why the criminal justice system in the US is truly fucked up.
posted by Talez at 8:48 AM on November 24, 2013 [32 favorites]


(Sorry - I misspoke and was harsh - your stance, IM, is more refined that I read your first comment, and I apologize for mis-taking your words in a manner in which they were not meant).
posted by symbioid at 8:49 AM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


"He could have just not done X" is a thing that means something different for a 15-year-old whose mental judgment faculties are not yet fully developed than it does for a 30-year-old. Or even the two 18-year-olds who were also involved. I think part of the injustice here is, no matter what order they plead in, placing a harsher sentence on the one of the three who was not actually a legal adult at the time of the crime.
posted by Sequence at 8:50 AM on November 24, 2013 [19 favorites]


Or even the two 18-year-olds who were also involved.

Car rental places think you're a fuck up until you're at least age 25. Who are we to argue with people that have actual skin in the game that depends on having a decent first approximation of the development of human maturity?
posted by Talez at 8:52 AM on November 24, 2013 [13 favorites]


If you can only get a fair sentence by waiving your right to a trial, the idea of a "fair trial" has no meaning.

There's one thing I'm not getting from the article. First of all, why did Blount receive the harshest plea deal? Did he not have the least involvement in the crime? If so, if I was a teenager, I would totally reject that plea deal and take my risks with a trial. This in and of itself would seem patently unfair. 18 years is already death sentence for a teenager. It's totally sick that the guy who did the least gets stuck with the biggest bill.

Second of all, for those of you flipping out about the punishment, it could be argued that the plea deals were far too lenient. I mean, these guys robbed an entire party? How else do you want the legal system to quantify this crime? This is such a grey area. On the one hand, these criminals should absolutely be charged with everything. On the other hand, Blount got the same sentence as Lee Malvo. I just don't know how to resolve that. You can go back to screaming about society all you want.
posted by phaedon at 8:53 AM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those of you who are arguing that Mr. Blount made bad decisions in going along with his friends in committing crimes, and then in refusing to plead guilty, did you miss the fact that he was a fifteen-year-old child?

We have brain scans and psychiatric studies and other evidence that prove that fifteen-year-old children don't make decisions the same way that adults do, that they don't have the mental capacity to understand how their choices are likely to play out, that they can't conceive of the consequences of their actions or envision the future in the same way that adults do. They don't have "agency" or the ability to make decisions in the same way adults do, either in situations where they commit crimes, or in the justice system afterwards. They are impulsive, they are easily manipulated, and they are short-sighted, because they are children.

We as a society, as well as specific victims, can be angry and upset and horrified at the actions this child took when a bunch of adults took him with them to commit a crime. But that doesn't change the fact that he's a fifteen-year-old child. We know that their mental capacity is less than that of adults, scientifically. And we as a society acknowledge that moral blameworthiness can be mitigated by mental incapacity. I would ask why we don't apply that logic to children, and I would submit that if it's because we are angry at them for doing things that frighten us, we are equally guilty of being overly emotional, rash, and unable to make reasoned choices based on the available evidence.
posted by decathecting at 8:55 AM on November 24, 2013 [67 favorites]


Minor point, but from the article, Blount didn't 'plan' on robbing a party. It seems that they just kept finding more and more people in the house. The original intent was to rob one person. The original risk he took (at least partially induced by his friends) did not appear to him to be 'life in prison' - it snowballed rather quickly.

Also seconding questions about learning difficulties.
posted by YAMWAK at 8:59 AM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


The plea bargain system is really good at screwing over the innocent. Do you take the guilty plea for the thing you didn't do or risk going to jail forever by attempting to prove it?
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:04 AM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


[Quit making it personal. Have civil discussions. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:17 AM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Of course we're supposed to have a safety valve. In theory, the wise and benevolent Governor of the state looks at it and sees that it's cruel and unjust, and gives clemency. Pity that the Republican party's use of that Willie Horton ad years ago gummed up that safety valve for the whole country. Only harsh punishment is ever politically acceptable anymore.
posted by tyllwin at 9:29 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


If an alien visited the United States from its point of conception, it would view 237 years of black people serving dramatically longer prison sentences. And that's assuming we didn't execute them - remember we're about 2 generations removed from the days when entire towns would attend a lynching. Living memory. There have been admirable periods of reform, but the trajectory is clear. When we say, "grandpa is insensitive but he's from another era," this is the era we're talking about. Things are less openly barbaric now, but the underlying racism remains as durable as ever.

American law has always been about dressing up white supremacy in its Sunday best. When slavery ended, control over black life was formally legalized into "vagrancy" and "impudence." Later it was the drug war. Each iteration adapts and reacts to progressive militancy, but the kind of language used, and more importantly the outcomes, are remarkably consistent.

Don't you dare claim that I'm against "law and order," as if I support robbery and chaos. Don't you dare claim this case is uniquely not racist because of x, y, and z. For every black person in jail right now, you could plausibly argue, "Obviously the system isn't fair but on the other hand, let's see how they made things worse for themselves." To ignore the historical perspective is to wear white supremacy's latest garb.
posted by gorbweaver at 9:33 AM on November 24, 2013 [35 favorites]


[Comment removed - please make an effort to make comments look like they are not trolling if you are not, in fact, trolling.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:37 AM on November 24, 2013


anything less than the needle is mercy.

It's been ruled unconstitutional to sentence minors to the death penalty, so sparing him from that fate isn't mercy, it's the law of the land.

And as a result, the taxpayers of the state of Virginia are going to cough up a million dollars to keep Mr. Blount behind bars for the rest of his life. An amount that could provide for a paid education at William and Mary for almost a dozen kids. What does it say about us that we're so willing to pay for the former but not the latter?
posted by xigxag at 9:44 AM on November 24, 2013 [21 favorites]


There's truth in what some of the more conservative bunch are saying, but I think that it's really hard to argue with a straight face that the sentencing model at work isn't cruel and unusual (life w/o parole for a not particularly notable crime without death involved) and coercive to waive one's right to a trial. Some keep pointing out that the kid refused to plea to 18 years, but it's worth pointing out that the prosecution was under no obligation to offer that. To say it again, given the facts of the case (ie that he is almost certainly guilty) and the sentencing model, a sentence between 10 years and life w/o parole was within the prosecutor's discretion. That's too much.

You don't have to think that he should get a juvenile slap on the wrist, or that prosecutors shouldn't be able to offer some inducements to cooperate to think that this result is a bad one. Perfectly valid and constitutional means have been taken too far one step at a time, and you end up at a place that shouldn't be allowed. Is there a judicial remedy that changes one or a few of the interlocking pieces? An additional safety valve for absurd results? I don't know how the appeal will end up.

Ever been robbed at gunpoint? Seen one citizen shoot another?

Yes, I have had a stupid kid (looked about 14) show me a gun and demand my phone and wallet. I do not think that he should die in prison for that, or even for a series of those. I honestly can't tell you how many victims of gun and gang violence I've taken care of. I've also taken care of kids in gangs, and can tell you that they are actual people and not cartoons. Sending some to die in prison doesn't seem to be the cure.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:49 AM on November 24, 2013 [24 favorites]


it could be argued that the plea deals were far too lenient

Not really. 10 years is a long time
posted by Hoopo at 9:49 AM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Talez: "
Car rental places think you're a fuck up until you're at least age 25. Who are we to argue with people that have actual skin in the game that depends on having a decent first approximation of the development of human maturity?
"

The states don't trust you to hold a beer till you are 21; it's completely dysfunctional that they can hand out such harsh punishments to someone so young.
posted by Mitheral at 9:52 AM on November 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


there's something that greatly puzzles me here - minors, as a general rule, aren't allowed to sign binding contracts

and yet, they're allowed to make - or fail to make plea bargains that could affect the rest of their lives
posted by pyramid termite at 9:59 AM on November 24, 2013 [30 favorites]


Talez, you forgot to mention that incarcerating people is also big business in the US. Some shareholders are really happy that an income stream is guaranteed in this particular case.
posted by nostrada at 10:12 AM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


I definitely consider 18 years excessive from the standpoint of rehabilitation. There is conversely a place for each individual charge carrying some weight in sentencing, as Ironmouth points out. If Mac Pharmaceutical's newest offering injures hundreds of people, I'd want them to pay fines and restitution for every single case, even if that bankrupts the company. An intelligent approach might be if financial damages almost always scaled linearly with the crime, but actual jail time should require either (a) a rehabilitory purpose or (b) a clear ongoing danger, so no mandatory minimums, or even just scale logarithmically in the actual crime.

As an aside, there is an insane double standard where cops and prosecutors almost never do time for their crimes, even child porn, but when they do..
NYPD chief-turned-inmate Kerik: Prison system is 'broken'

Also, I highly recommend the Police the Poilce twitter and facebook feeds, as well as the CopBlock facebook and youtube, just never gotten around to writing a post about them. Related :
Officer Gelhaus shoots kills 13-year-old Andy Lopez over a toy gun
Dad calls cops on son for taking truck to buy cigarettes, Officer McPherson shoots teen dead during chase
For the First Time Ever, a Prosecutor Will Go to Jail for Wrongfully Convicting an Innocent Man [But Only For 10 Days]
posted by jeffburdges at 10:14 AM on November 24, 2013 [13 favorites]


Ever been robbed at gunpoint?

We don't really have many guns in the UK but I've been robbed a couple of times with a knife pushed up against my ribs, when I was a teenager. Obviously I handed over my stuff damn fast and it was just not that big of a deal. I had a cool story to dine out on for years after.

Certainly nobody should be going to prison for decades for doing it - especially since that doesn't seem to deter the next bunch of guys from doing it to someone else.
posted by colie at 10:15 AM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


The states don't trust you to hold a beer till you are 21; it's completely dysfunctional that they can hand out such harsh punishments to someone so young.

See, this is a great example of a comment that seems to make sense but doesn't. It adds a little "the man" drama to the situation but also robs the story of some of its unbelievability.

If you look at the crime data in Chicago over the past 50 years, murderers and victims have all skewed younger. Of course, the majority of crime happens under the age of 35. But according to the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, since 2007, 601 kids from the ages of 15-20 have been killed in a homicide. From the ages of 20-25, 763. By far the most active age groups.

So this type of crime isn't an outlier. This "kid," "how could we do this," "the system is so fucked up." All true, but this is basically the frontline of crime and one of the most active areas of criminal punishment. This is why the jails are chock full of black kids. This is the system.
posted by phaedon at 10:23 AM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


But this wasn't a murder. It was just a robbery. I thought robberies were happening all the time? Apu gets robbed in the Simpsons. How you can go to jail for 10,000 years for doing one is beyond me.
posted by colie at 10:30 AM on November 24, 2013


I'm torn, here.

Blount helped rob, at gunpoint, a dozen people. While life might be too long, what would you all suggest as jail time for this?

10 and 13 years for his co-defendants might be closer to a better sentence, but for a 15 or 18 year old, that is still a long time. If you go in at 17 (which is when his trial was) you are still coming out at 27 or 30.

How do you come back from that?

I think it needs to be looked back at when he was 11 and joining a gang. Or at 15 and in sixth grade for the fourth time. What was going on at home? Why was he held back so much? Was it a learning disability (as someone above suggested) or the fact that he wasn't going to school (as stated in the article.)

"Around the time he was 9, he skipped school and began to get into trouble, his family said. He met Morris “Mo” Downing in middle school, and it was Mo, a few years older and streetwise, who brought Travion into the gang life. They were like brothers.

Travion joined the Crips when he was 11. "

Where was his mother when he was skipping school at nine? For that matter, where was the school system? I missed too much school and I was hauled into truancy court (I was older, and actually quit school for a year, they hauled me into court because I was too young to quit in VA. I went back.)

How is an 11 year old running the roads with a gang and his Mom not knowing where he is?

This kid was failed a long time before he went to court, a long time before he held up a dozen people at gunpoint.

So, what's the answer here?

I don't think there isn't any clear cut answer, by any stretch of the imagination.
posted by SuzySmith at 10:50 AM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have trouble with the practice of trying minors in adult court under any circumstances. If the laws that distinguish between minors and adults are well founded (i.e. if there is a difference between children and adults) why does this magically change when the actions committed by the child are more serious? Isn't the disproportionality of the action further evidence that a child committed it?
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 11:04 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


why does this magically change when the actions committed by the child are more serious?

Well I mean I think the analogy breaks down when you start talking about serious crimes. How could it not? On what planet is being 15 and going after a drug dealer and ending up with 49 felony counts a teachable moment? You're talking about a country with a horrible public education system, so let's not get all sentimental here.
posted by phaedon at 11:13 AM on November 24, 2013


re: mental health

I am diagnosed mildly autistic and can totally see it. I would not be surprised if one in 4 men could be diagnosed. Most people are simply never tested professionally.

Blount didn't 'plan' on robbing a party. It seems that they just kept finding more and more people in the house.

Classic autistic scenario. Make a stupid social decision. Then cannot think on your feet as the social situation escalates (overload). Then he indignantly refused to compromise, demanding justice. Soooo familiar.

But my main point: this sentence makes crime more likely:

1. This rewards criminals for killing witnesses.

2. This removes trust in the police.

3. It drains the justice system of money.

Is anything more calculated to cause crime?
posted by EnterTheStory at 11:16 AM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Where was his mother when he was skipping school at nine? For that matter, where was the school system? I missed too much school and I was hauled into truancy court (I was older, and actually quit school for a year, they hauled me into court because I was too young to quit in VA. I went back.)

His mother tried to get help to keep him in school (including from the truancy court) and no one helped.
posted by hoyland at 11:26 AM on November 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


Angela Blount watched her son turn and ask, “What happened, Mom?”


What happened is you and your friends decided to invade someone's home with guns drawn; threaten 20 people with murder and rob them. Now society is so terrified of you that you will spend the rest of your life in jail. You are lucky that you didn't shoot anyone dead during your crime spree because them the state of Virginia would have sentenced you to death. We offered you 18 years, time enough for you to reflect and mature beyond whatever adolescent idiocy drove you to this violent path. This was your second chance and you said no. Still you will now live a long life in prison instead of being killed in your twenties by the dealers and their customers you set out to rob.
posted by humanfont at 11:41 AM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well I mean I think the analogy breaks down when you start talking about serious crimes. How could it not? On what planet is being 15 and going after a drug dealer and ending up with 49 felony counts a teachable moment? You're talking about a country with a horrible public education system, so let's not get all sentimental here.

Phaedon, you're conflating two different questions here. The first question is, do children have the mental capacity to make decisions and understand the consequences of their actions so that they should be held morally and legally culpable for his actions in the way we hold rational adults culpable in the criminal justice system? To that, I think that the answer is, empirically, no. Children's brain development is simply incomplete in a way that leaves them unable to understand the nature and consequences of their choices the way that rational adults can. They have diminished mental capacity, just as we'd say someone has diminished mental capacity if he is severely mentally ill or developmentally delayed.

When someone says to a child, "hey, want to come along while I mess this guy up?" a child doesn't have the same capacity that you or I have to predict the things that could go wrong, or even to think clearly about why such an act might be wrong. We as a society believe that it's wrong to hold someone legally accountable for an action that he could not, in relevantly important ways, understand. And that's the situation a child is in. That means that, if we want to be morally consistent, we can't hold children legally responsible for their actions in the way that we hold rational adults responsible.

The second question is, what do we do with people who have committed crimes, but who have diminished responsibility for them? And that's a question that has to be answered after we answer the first question, about what it means to have diminished mental capacity. And I think most people would agree that someone who is dangerous, but not fully legally culpable for his actions as a rational adult would be, can't be allowed to continue to behave in dangerous ways and hurt innocent people. But that doesn't mean that life in prison is the answer.

For one thing, childhood is something that people grow out of. You can look at crime statistics that show that recidivism rates drop dramatically as people age, even for people who committed serious crimes when they were younger. Again, there's empirical evidence for this: most people who commit serious crimes when they are young eventually "go straight" when they get older, regardless of how lenient or harsh their sentences were.

But additionally, yes, juvenile crime, even serious crime, could be a teachable moment if we didn't put children in prison for life. We are robbing ourselves and these kids of opportunities for rehabilitation by assuming that the seriousness of the harm a child causes correlates with the likelihood that we can teach him not to do it again. On what planet is this a teachable moment? This planet, in most of the industrialized world, and in a lot of cases right here in America involving kids from "good" families. Again, the research does not support your conclusion, and I would implore you to actually look at the empirical studies that have been done on this topic before drawing conclusions about it.

What you seem to be saying is something like, "okay, even if it's true that kids aren't as responsible for their actions because they can't envision the consequences of their choices, in a case like this, where you have a kid who makes a choice and the consequences balloon wildly out of control such that something really bad happens, that must mean that the kid had a well above average capacity to predict those consequences, predicted them accurately in this case, and chose to take the action anyway knowing that the consequences would result, and therefore, he is more morally culpable than he would have been if the situation had remained under control. Therefore, he can't possibly be taught how to make better choices in the future, so we should stop treating him like a child and lock him up forever." And there is absolutely no evidence that that's true. It's equivalent to saying, "we won't bind a child to a contract to mow your lawn, but if he tries to sign a contract to pay you a billion dollars, that's a more serious contract, so he must be thinking like an adult, so we should enforce that contract as if he were an adult." Even if you think this child was the mastermind of the whole operation, you can't look at how it turned out to decide whether he understood what he was doing at the time he decided to do it.

But my overarching point is, you can't conflate those two questions, of personal responsibility and of societal response. You have to answer each one in order. In this case, and throughout the justice system, we are answering them both incorrectly, to the detriment of both individuals and society as a whole.
posted by decathecting at 11:49 AM on November 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


SuzySmith: Blount helped rob, at gunpoint, a dozen people. While life might be too long, what would you all suggest as jail time for this?

I often think that we should consider replacing prison as a one-fits-all punishment with some sort of system of assessment and intervention. Have a team look over what is wrong with this person's life and figure out what needs to be done in this specific case to meaningfully change their behavior.

In this case, from what I can read, I'd probably recommend the following:

6 months -1 year in a secure facility to let addictions fade and change lifestyle patterns. In this system, these facilities would be more secure than now (in particular, they'd be secure from drugs).
A few years in a less secure facility where he'd be taught enough to get a GED if possible, and hopefully some vocational skills.
A community re-entry system of some kind that would arrange a job and housing for when he got out, at least for a while, as well as including some kind of probation so he doesn't immediately go out and get in more trouble.
A permanent ban on firearm ownership and knowingly associating with gang activity or known gang members.
A 10 year banishment from entering within 1000 miles of his current home city (force a permanent move to break relationships with current friends and gang members).
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:51 AM on November 24, 2013 [14 favorites]


you and your friends decided to invade someone's home with guns drawn

His mistake was in doing it small. If he had joined a national movement to do the same thing on a global scale he would be called a hero.
posted by EnterTheStory at 11:53 AM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


You are lucky that you didn't shoot anyone dead during your crime spree because them the state of Virginia would have sentenced you to death.

Apologies, irony passed me by first time.
posted by colie at 12:11 PM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mitrovarr, I was mostly with you until this:

A 10 year banishment from entering within 1000 miles of his current home city (force a permanent move to break relationships with current friends and gang members).

This would force a permanent break with family members and loved ones. For a lot of kids, this would mean they would never see their parents again, nor would they have any help beyond what they could get the system to provide in dealing with housing, job searching, etc. Family is most people's biggest and most stable sources of emotional support. One of the most important factors in successful reentry after incarceration is strong family support. By effectively banishing people from their homes, you basically guarantee that their lives will be unstable for at least a decade, which is not something you want when you're trying to get a kid to live a law-abiding life.

(I also have questions about what it means to be forbidden from associating with "known gang members." I worry that it would look an awful lot like the "association" charges, impossible to disprove, that get prisoners thrown into solitary confinement without due process. And I don't trust the system not to try to use these sorts of fuzzy requirements as excuses to violate people and imprison them, because that's what the system has always done.)
posted by decathecting at 12:19 PM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


The problem is, taking someone like this and fitting them into a law-abiding life is absolutely dependent on completely and permanently severing their gang ties. I suspect it's honestly more important to keep him away from his gang associates than to keep him near his family; as important as family is, those gang associates will be able to drag him right back into that lifestyle if he's not kept scrupulously away. I can't figure out any better way to avoid that.

Plus, there's a good chance that some of them are his family.

Of course, this isn't really a big part of my overall suggestion, in which case we'd have committees of educated criminal rehabilitation specialists determining these policies with the aid of an active research program. I am just guessing so as to provide an example.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:27 PM on November 24, 2013


It's way, way easier to find criminals in a new city who will let you help them commit crimes than it is to find law-abiding people in a new city who will let you treat them like family and rely on them as family does. Both of those things are especially true if you have a criminal record. Banishment does not make people stop committing crimes, and it makes it harder for them to stop even if they really, really want to.
posted by decathecting at 12:40 PM on November 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


Any of his victims -- none of whom the article spared a moment's thought -- could have lawfully killed him in self defense; anything less than the needle is mercy. 18 years was a more generous offer than he deserved.

This is one of the more ridiculous statements I've ever read on the blue.
posted by IvoShandor at 12:40 PM on November 24, 2013 [20 favorites]


I'm happy holding the ideas that (1) armed robbery merits harsh punishment and (2) that six life sentences is beyond ridiculous in my head at the same time.

While the New Zealand equivalent would seem on the light side it all comes back to what you're trying to achieve; penal policy is a weird slurry of prevention, rehabilitation, retaliation and racism.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:08 PM on November 24, 2013


What happened is you and your friends decided to invade someone's home with guns drawn; threaten 20 people with murder and rob them. Now society is so terrified of you that you will spend the rest of your life in jail. You are lucky that you didn't shoot anyone dead during your crime spree because them the state of Virginia would have sentenced you to death.

First, as I said earlier, putting minors to death is no longer legal. See Roper v Simmons. Second, it's not reasonable to say that he's being given a life sentence because we're "so terrified" of him. Armed robbery wouldn't typically get more than 5-15 years in any state. Even murder gets less time behind bars on average. In most of the rest of the world such sentences are unheard of - are we really such scaredy-cats here? And then every once in a while you hear about a case like the "Barbie bandits," where the criminals get off with a slap on the wrist. It's that disparity, and the utter lack of concern for the injustice inherent in that disparity, which is so incredibly infuriating.

Third, not to single you out, but these "you got what you deserved, scum" comments, where people insist on smugly lecturing the convict, are deeply troubling in some way that I can't put words to. It's not kicking him while he's down, exactly, since there's no possibility of him ever reading the remark. It's more like kicking down anyone else who sympathizes with his plight in any fashion.
posted by xigxag at 1:41 PM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is the thread I will point people to the next time I hear accusations that metafilter is a decidedly liberal place.
posted by el io at 2:28 PM on November 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


SuzySmith: "Blount helped rob, at gunpoint, a dozen people. While life might be too long, what would you all suggest as jail time for this? "
About three years in juvie with mandatory education activities. Five years if he'd been an adult.
posted by brokkr at 2:55 PM on November 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


The first question is, do children have the mental capacity to make decisions and understand the consequences of their actions so that they should be held morally and legally culpable for his actions in the way we hold rational adults culpable in the criminal justice system? To that, I think that the answer is, empirically, no.

That is as may be, but it's not a viable political option. Implementing your suggestion means finding that individuals under the age of. . . what? 20? 25? Some studies suggest that the brain continues to develop and mature until almost age 30? . . . incapable of being held fully responsible for their actions. I'm sorry, but that's just not something we can afford to do. No society can. The law already does some of what you're talking about. Children under the age of 7 are conclusively incapable of committing crimes. Children between the ages of 7 and 14-16 are presumed to be incapable of such, but this presumption can be overturned, and the closer you get to 16, the easier it gets to do that. But once you hit 16, you're responsible for your actions.

You have to be. We let sixteen-year-olds, drive. We let eighteen-year-olds do pretty much everything except buy beer. If we're going to let them do those things, we have to hold them accountable for the consequences of their choices. To do otherwise would be sheer madness.
posted by valkyryn at 3:41 PM on November 24, 2013


I agree that serious sentences need to be meted out, for punishment, for rehabilitation, for protecting society. But few people here are advocating the life sentence.

6 months -1 year in a secure facility to let addictions fade and change lifestyle patterns. In this system, these facilities would be more secure than now (in particular, they'd be secure from drugs).
A few years in a less secure facility where he'd be taught enough to get a GED if possible, and hopefully some vocational skills.
A community re-entry system of some kind that would arrange a job and housing for when he got out, at least for a while, as well as including some kind of probation so he doesn't immediately go out and get in more trouble.
A permanent ban on firearm ownership and knowingly associating with gang activity or known gang members.
A 10 year banishment from entering within 1000 miles of his current home city (force a permanent move to break relationships with current friends and gang members).


Probation/parole policies are all fine and dandy, but this is exactly the kind of thing that helps keep prison populations at all time highs. Unless you're talking about policies with no teeth.

10 year exile also sounds fraught with difficulties. What kind of exceptional bootstraps is this kind of person going to need to make a successful re-entrance into society? Plenty of resourceful, straight, non criminal civilians would have trouble with the of burden of starting anew in a town with no family/friend support.

Really, this sounds far more unrealistic than any of those, "he shouldn'ta held up those folks in the first place" responses.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting profile of sociologist Alice Goffman and her book covering some of these sentencing aspects and the aftermath of modern justice system.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:44 PM on November 24, 2013


el io: "This is the thread I will point people to the next time I hear accusations that metafilter is a decidedly liberal place."

Well, MeFi does skew left, of course, (these debates occur within the Overton window we have, not the one we might wish to have), but at least in the U.S., the left has lost much of its ability to claim any kind of leadership on the issue of fairness in our justice system. It happened in the 1990s when prominent Democrats embraced all of the "tough on crime" bullshit (mandatory minimum drug setences, "three strikes" laws, etc.) because they realized their opponents were using an emphasis on "law and order" to win elections at the state and local levels.

It wasn't just Clinton trying to out-Reagan Reagan (who was really just trying to out-Nixon Nixon), it was also Democratic mayors and governors. This makes it hard for party to turn on a dime and suddenly start talking about reducing sentences and having a more compassionate approach toward justice. I'm not saying they can't do it -- the Fair Sentencing Act is an example of one small (albeit important) step in the right direction -- but you know the GOP is going to be there ready to run Willie Horton style ads against any Democrats who dare try to move too fast in the direction of a more holistic approach toward crime.

I do think increasing awareness of the evils of the private prison industry might help push the party in the right direction, and there has been some coalition-building between libertarians and liberals on issues around the militarization of police forces and "The War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs (tm)", but we're still left with a situation where many of the people in power right now got there by taking a very similar approach toward crime as the one people are rightfully repulsed by in this thread, and they got there in part because voters wanted them to be tougher on crime.
posted by tonycpsu at 3:48 PM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


tonycpsu: the left has lost much of its ability to claim any kind of leadership on the issue of fairness in our justice system.

I guess I would disagree with you, in a way... I certainly agree with you that the Democrats have lost any claim on leadership on such issues, but I don't really consider them 'left'; I consider most democrats conservative moderates (except on some social issues), with some notable exceptions.

But it seems striking to me that when the blue is discussing the prison-industrial-complex and it's apparently/obvious racism in the abstract the blue will largely condemn the state we are at... But the moment we drop down to a single individual case, we are apparently pretty comfortable (or a significant percentage of us) at jailing for life a 15 year old child.

The tone of this thread doesn't give me much hope for the US significantly reforming the prison system here; I can see that we'll 'lead' the world in incarnations for a long long time.
posted by el io at 4:10 PM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is the thread I will point people to the next time I hear accusations that metafilter is a decidedly liberal place.

Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. Society's ills are really complicated and the answers are not simple. Some of Mitrovarr's suggestions on how to reform or replace the prison system are great, but unfortunately, some would argue that the problem is not with the specifics of the current system, but rather that big government is incapable of offering adequate solutions to, among other things, individual failings. Solve one problem and two new ones appear. Is the answer more government? Is the solution as simple as the father ruling with a velvet glove and giving its children more chances to succeed? The question remains, what do we do with the hard cases? And who makes these kinds of decisions? One look at Congress and you might ask yourself, are these the people I want getting more involved in the further legislating life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

So this is called having a nuanced conversation, at least I can testify to my participation in this thread being just that. Such criticisms have been discussed in even the most seminal of texts espousing liberal political theory, from the builders of this country all the way back to Rousseau. Order versus individual freedom. I don't think there are any easy answers. When you have a 15-year old committing 49 felonies and standing trial in a state that has mandatory sentencing, this is what you get. A horrible situation.

The fact that you can elbow-nudge others and chastise some of us by keeping score on some political ledger, is a testament to how things get reduced immediately in this culture to a political football and how much we welcome talking past each other. As for the tone of this country, I agree with you. The social and economic inequities alone, the free market "fuck you if I can get away with it" morality, the corruption of government.. nobody dreams anymore about a better world. It's a really horrid world we live in and I don't think history will judge us too kindly. And you can shit on the US but we had a good thing going here. One can only hope that after we are done cannibalizing on each other, that a new, even better ray of light breaks through the clouds.
posted by phaedon at 4:40 PM on November 24, 2013


Children between the ages of 7 and 14-16 are presumed to be incapable of such, but this presumption can be overturned, and the closer you get to 16, the easier it gets to do that. But once you hit 16, you're responsible for your actions.

This kid was 15. It appears as if the standard for trying someone as an adult is "we feel like it".

I would be interested in knowing if it'd be worth making a distinction between at 15 year old who robs people at gunpoint of their own initiative and one who does so accompanied by significantly older people. Superficially, I'm doubly inclined to think there's no way Blount should have been tried as an adult because everyone else involved was older. (Okay, I think there should be a hard line, be it 16 or 18, we can debate, under which you have to be tried as a juvenile, none of this try-them-as-an-adult vengeance crap.) Any out of character, vaguely dangerous thing I did at the age of 15 (which, let's face it, wasn't very dangerous or illegal, but if you're using yourself as an example, you've got what you've got to work with) was in the company of 17 or 18 year olds.
posted by hoyland at 4:44 PM on November 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


We let sixteen-year-olds, drive. We let eighteen-year-olds do pretty much everything except buy beer. If we're going to let them do those things, we have to hold them accountable for the consequences of their choices. To do otherwise would be sheer madness

I don't think anyone has any issue treating an 18-year-old as an adult, and I don't think anyone is arguing the response to something like this should be "boys will be boys, now run along and play nice." But it does not follow for me that because a 16-year-old is legally allowed to drive a car that 16-year-olds should necessarily be tried as adults in court. A 16-year-old does not get the full rights and privileges under the law as an adult because they cannot be expected to use them responsibly, and as such they should not be held to the same standard as adults. To me the consequences they do face should be different.
posted by Hoopo at 4:50 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


What's one gang banger's fate weigh on the scales of justice in a world where thieving bankers walked free, war criminals like Cheney get new hearts and over a million men languish in prison for non-violent drug related offenses?
posted by humanfont at 5:14 PM on November 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


This kid was 15. It appears as if the standard for trying someone as an adult is "we feel like it".

Not really. One of the issues courts consider when deciding whether to treat a minor as an adult is whether they were engaged in an "adult activity."

Riding a bike? Playing tag? Throwing a ball around? Treated like a kid.

Driving? Operating heavy machinery? Robbing a dozen people at gunpoint? Treated like an adult.

I would be interested in knowing if it'd be worth making a distinction between at 15 year old who robs people at gunpoint of their own initiative and one who does so accompanied by significantly older people.

It's not that there's a hard-and-fast distinction, but yes, that is one thing that a court would consider. A minor acting on his own is more likely to get tried as an adult than one acting in concert with older kids or adults.

But the courts also consider the seriousness of the crime.

Retail theft? Possession? Underage drinking? Most of the time that gets handled in the juvenile system.

But most violent crimes aren't.

Look, I think this is a miscarriage of justice, but not for these reasons. I'm entirely comfortable with him being tried as an adult. I just don't think anyone should be facing that kind of time for these facts. It's not proportional. Nobody got hurt. I'd have been okay with the 18 years offered in the plea deal, maybe even 20, but not this. Mandatory minimums and multiplication of charges are really pernicious problems.
posted by valkyryn at 5:18 PM on November 24, 2013


Okay, look, I'm a criminal defense attorney. Here's what I think happened.

DA files charges for as many counts he can come up with. That's what they always do. Lesser-includeds, alternate theories, and every single violation charged as a separate count. I'm working with somebody right now that's facing one felony, one misdemeanor, and twenty summary offenses related to a single police chase. They've filed a separate charge for each and every stop light and stop sign the guy ran on an eight-mile chase. So in this case, each time Blount brandished a firearm, that was another dozen counts of something, one for every person in the room.

But here's the thing: the DA would almost certainly have been willing to drop most of those in a plea deal. Rather than a dozen of every offense, maybe drop it down to one or two of each. That's how you get from four consecutive life sentences plus twenty years down to eighteen. And this is really key: the DA probably never expected or even wanted to convict Blount on everything. He had the guy dead to rights. Rooms full of witnesses. Testimony of co-conspirators. The guy is going to plead guilty, obviously, so let's charge him with everything and just bargain the thing down like we always do.

Really. DAs will drop charges just for the asking in most plea negotiations. In exchange for pleading guilty, i.e., not making the prosecutor try the case, you'd be surprised what they're willing to drop. I don't even know how many of those charges the DA would need to have dropped to get the sentence down to eighteen years, but it must have been a ton.

But you have to take a deal, and Blount didn't. Any deal. His lawyer and parents were begging him to, but he didn't. The DA wasn't going to drop any of the charges without a plea, and no plea was in the offing, so hey. Here we go.

You know what I think the real problem is? It's pretty technical, but it's that we permit multiple counts to arise out of a single act. Blount robbed a dozen-odd people, sure, but he did it all at once. It's not like he made a dozen different decisions at a dozen different times to rob a dozen different people at gunpoint. That really would display the kind of depraved heart that would make putting him away forever seem a bit less problematic. No, in this case he basically made one decision, at one time. It was still to rob people at gunpoint, but he only had to think about it the once. Doesn't evidence the same kind of extended malignity that a repeated course of conduct over years would do. But because there were a bunch of people affected by that one decision, the law permits us to charge him with a distinct count for each of them, even though it all happened at the same time.

I don't think that's appropriate, but to be honest I'm not sure there's a very good way of fixing it. Even thinking about trying to write appropriate statutory or judicial language to impose an appropriate limit on that sort of thing while not hamstringing the point of the criminal law makes my head hurt at this point on a Sunday evening. Maybe tomorrow.

But that's something else to keep in mind here: one thing that plea deals sometimes accomplish is to shield defendants from the full brunt of the law. Sometimes a defendant has done something which technically merits a whole slew of charges, and sometimes prosecutors realize that there's something about the case which makes a conviction on all of them inappropriate. One way of handling that is to charge everything but drop a ton of them as part of a plea deal. The defendant is thus exposed to the full wrath of the law, but it's mitigated by the wisdom of the person enforcing it. Again, you do have to play ball though.
posted by valkyryn at 5:38 PM on November 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


Mandatory minimums and multiplication of charges are really pernicious problems.

And so is the system that makes accessing your right to a fair trial potentially so punishing as to make that access basically a fiction, especially if you are poor, male, and young (and especially especially if you're black). I know there are upsides to encouraging plea deals, but the downsides are abysmal.
posted by rtha at 5:46 PM on November 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


This would have been fun to bring up in my Criminal Procedure class this semester. At what point does the plea deal undermine the right to a fair trial? I think somewhere before what happened here.

We'll see what happens under federal habeas, but that doctrine has shifted against defendants since the glory days of the Warren Court.
posted by enjoymoreradio at 7:33 PM on November 24, 2013


This would have been fun to bring up in my Criminal Procedure class this semester. At what point does the plea deal undermine the right to a fair trial? I think somewhere before what happened here.

After Ruiz, I don't think it would come into it.
posted by Talez at 7:52 PM on November 24, 2013


valkyryn: The DA wasn't going to drop any of the charges without a plea...

Pardon my language, but why the fuck not? At the point where you're setting yourself up to send a kid to prison for a century, why do you not take a step back and say, you know, we've got him dead to rights on these three counts and if he's convicted he'll be in jail for the next decade, so I'm going to avoid a heinous miscarriage of justice by charging him with three counts of robbery instead of ten. Isn't that the DA's job? Figuring out what to charge a suspect with? Why are you talking like this was entirely out of his control?

It's just astonishing to me that as soon as the kid didn't do what he was "supposed" to do, and rejected the plea deal in favor of his constitutionally protected right to trial, the entire system just ran off the fucking rails. It's like the both the DA and the judge, in all their wisdom, literally could not imagine that a trial might be a mechanism for dispensing some kind of measured justice, instead of just a worst-case nightmare scenario used to bludgeon people into "playing ball."
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:00 PM on November 24, 2013 [23 favorites]


valkyryn: You know what I think the real problem is? It's pretty technical, but it's that we permit multiple counts to arise out of a single act. [...] I don't think that's appropriate, but to be honest I'm not sure there's a very good way of fixing it.

There has always been some tension here. In Australia, the common law (as well as statute) forbids double punishment, but we've also been reluctant to do away with the idea of allowing multiple counts to arise from single acts (particularly when the act leads to multiple harms).

In practical terms it seems a lot of this is resolved by resort to something called the principle of totality - "a last look at the total just to see whether it looks wrong". Mill's case has more if you're interested.

Obviously, the principle does not mesh well with the concept of mandatory minimum sentences where the enactments require those sentences to be served consecutively instead of concurrently.
posted by curious.jp at 8:23 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a solution to this you know. He could have, perhaps, not participated in a robbery?

I agree, his sentence is excessive, but violent crime (which this is) deserves harsh punishment.

We're all backwards in this country, we're locking up people for nonviolent drug crimes and somehow violent offenders are able to get back on the streets again. Maybe if we quit throwing people in jail for drug offenses, we would have more room to keep people in prison who actually belong there.
posted by autobahn at 9:38 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Now society is so terrified of you that you will spend the rest of your life in jail.

Note that, in the first world, only the United States is such a nation of abject cowards. Many decades ago, all other civilized countries decided that they would emphasize rehabilitation, instead of brutal retributive punishment. All these countries, instead of being so terrified that they can't see any alternative to destroying someone's entire life for a crime which hurt no one and was committed by a child, actually have some sort of system in place to bring people back into society, recognizing that people do not lose their humanity just because they make a mistake which harmed no one at 15.

Of course, in other societies, when his mother tried to seek help before the crime happened, she would have gotten it. But in American, fear rules - not a penny for prevention, but an atom bomb for punishment.

(Strangely enough, there's a similar bad attitude to preventative medicine - pennies for prevention, thousands of dollars for treatment. But I digress...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:01 PM on November 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


violent crime (which this is) deserves harsh punishment

Why does it deserve the infliction of orders of magnitude more bodily damage and psychological stress than the perpetrator caused the victims?

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the way we habitually rank grades of punishment for these things. Starting from the principle that "the punishment should fit the crime", we segue sideways into a weird attempt to rank crimes and punishments, and perceive injustice whenever we see a high-ranked crime get fewer years of punishment than some other person in some other place at some other time has received for one perceived as lower-ranked. The result is pressure to ratchet up sentences across the board, because any attempt to address the issue from the other side (i.e. questioning whether some existing sentences have been excessive) is seen as "ignoring the rights of the victims".

This is broken, because crime is multi-dimensional in ways that years of sentence simply aren't and there is no consensus about the weighting factors appropriate for converting those multiple dimensions of badness into a one-dimensional rating of crime seriousness. This makes rankings of crime seriousness very much arbitrary and subjective. Statute, case law and legal convention provide the weightings used in practice, but these reflect community expectation every bit as poorly as any other set because community expectation is inherently and necessarily incoherent.

I have no idea how to fix it, but it does seem to me that there needs to me more attention paid to reducing the weighting for "has black skin" to zero as a matter of practice. Merely having laws that say this should be so is obviously not working.
posted by flabdablet at 12:09 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


A case from my home town - Canberra, Australia. Seventeen-year-old male and accomplice use a baseball bat and a machete to cave in the head of a man walking down the street because he was Asian. Seventeen years, out in ten and a half.

I'm not saying it's excessive, or not enough. I'm glad I don't have to make those calls. I'm sad that it's fucked up for everybody and there are no easy answers.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:25 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blount helped rob, at gunpoint, a dozen people. While life might be too long, what would you all suggest as jail time for this?

Something in the order of five years seems fair, slightly longer, seven years say, for the ones that actually held the gun. At the age these people were at the time of their crimes, that's roughly a third of their lives, roughly a quarter once they get out. Once they get out after that time, their friends will have moved on with their lives, their peers will have settled down and started adult lives, while they will have to make good the time spent in prison.

It is therefore a serious punishment, but not one that leaves you without the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption. There's still the possibility of building a normal live once you're out of prison, which is much less possible with an eighteen year sentence, let alone a lifetime sentence of course.

(a quick scan of Dutch armed robbery cases shows that this would be in line with Dutch case law, depending on circumstances.)
posted by MartinWisse at 12:37 AM on November 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't that the DA's job? Figuring out what to charge a suspect with?

It's arguably the DA's job to charge a suspect with every offense for which there is sufficient evidence to get a conviction. It's not like they had him dead to right on three counts and a fair shot at another seven.

You seem to be forgetting two very important pieces of information here. First, DAs are generally elected officials. Second, the victims of crime care about what happens to their assailants. What you're basically saying is that the DA should tell the victims "We're going to charge him for robbing you three, but not the other nine of you, because that wouldn't be fair to him." Well what about the victims? They didn't do anything to deserve this, while Blount did, in fact, rob them at gunpoint, whatever else we may say about him. A DA that made that kind of move would find himself looking for new employment after the next election. Many counties actually have something like a Victim Advocate, a position specifically created to represent the interests of the victims of crime. You'd better believe DAs pay attention.

So no. Having someone dead to rights on a dozen counts but only charging three of them isn't really an option. Not bringing charges for which he's got evidence isn't something a DA can do all that often if he wants to keep his job.
posted by valkyryn at 2:28 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


But that's exactly what this DA did in the plea bargains, as evidenced by those bargains not including hundred-year sentences, and apparently nobody worried that those offers were too lenient for appearances.

I realize the answer is that there's a different expectation for sentences that come out of a trial, but that is a terrible standard to set.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 3:17 AM on November 25, 2013 [3 favorites]




But that's exactly what this DA did in the plea bargains

No, it isn't. He presumably brought all of the charges he could against all of the defendants--I'm assuming that, as I haven't seen the criminal filings, but it's a pretty safe assumption--and then dropped some of them in exchange for a guilty plea. Victim advocates frequently yell about this sort of thing, but the voting public tends to draw a distinction between charges that were filed and then negotiated and not bringing charges that are supported by the evidence.

You seem to think that Blount doesn't bear any of the responsibility for what happened to him. In point of fact, he had two opportunities to avoid this outcome. First, he could have decided not to rob people at gunpoint. That'd have been a good move. Second, he could have decided to follow the advice of his lawyer, his family, and the DA, in taking a deal rather than face a pretty much guaranteed conviction for everything and a much, much harsher sentence. For whatever reason, he didn't do that. That was stupid. It was a mistake to rob people in the first place, and then it was a second mistake not to take seriously the potential consequences of that first mistake, which were likely explained to him in excruciating detail.

So yes, there is a problem with criminal sentencing in this country, but if Blount had simply heeded the writing on the wall--in mile-high letters of fire--we wouldn't be having this conversation.

There are much, much better sets of facts to talk about the excesses of criminal sentencing in this country. California's "Three Strikes" law is a prime example. Commit a third offense, however minor, and you go away for a very long time. That's no good. And it's not like the DA or anybody else has any discretion there. The DA can't really offer much of a deal in a third-strike case, as sentence is largely non-negotiable. That's hugely problematic. In this case, there was an opportunity for Blount to take much, much lighter sentence, one which far better fits the seriousness of his crime, but for whatever reason he didn't take it. That's at least a little on him.
posted by valkyryn at 5:38 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is only one civilized solution, outlaw all plea bargains, ideally take every case go to trial, but judges are more trustworthy than prosecutors regardless.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:00 AM on November 25, 2013


Second, he could have decided to follow the advice of his lawyer, his family, and the DA, in taking a deal rather than face a pretty much guaranteed conviction for everything and a much, much harsher sentence.

That's the part of this that is ridiculous. I'm not arguing that he bears no responsibility for what happened. I do think it's a terrible decision to charge a 15-year-old kid as an adult just because the crime was violent, because not being able to weigh the consequences of one's actions is why we have a separate sentencing system for minors in the first place. But that wasn't my point, and I agree that he should be in some kind of correctional institution for some length of time, regardless.

But here's the thing: Travion and his associates committed the same crime, plus or minus an assault with a deadly weapon (and let's not forget it was the associates who got lesser sentences who did that one), but for invoking his right to a trial, however foregone the verdict might have been, one of them gets his sentence extended by...what do you think, 300%? 400%? Hard to say, since the end date is only set when he dies. Meanwhile, people who were co-conspirators in the same robbery have a future to look forward to when they get out of prison, even if it's not likely to be a very good one, solely because they rolled over for the system and didn't dare to waste time getting a judge and jury involved.

That isn't just a bad decision, it's evil.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:02 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is only one civilized solution, outlaw all plea bargains

Yeah, no. We'd have to increase the size and budget of the court system, prosecutors' offices, and public defenders' offices by at least an order of magnitude. As that's simply not going to happen, we'd simply have to let most crimes go without any kind of legal consequence whatsoever.

That hardly seems "civilized" to me.
posted by valkyryn at 6:06 AM on November 25, 2013


people who were co-conspirators in the same robbery have a future to look forward to when they get out of prison, even if it's not likely to be a very good one, solely because they rolled over for the system and didn't dare to waste time getting a judge and jury involved.

That's not it though. Blount isn't really being punished for insisting on taking his case to trial. That certainly happens in other cases, but I don't think it happened in this one. The DA wasn't really in a position to either not bring all of the charges in the first place, nor to drop charges because the defendant wasn't playing ball. Blount basically dared the criminal justice system to throw the book at him. His guilt was abundantly clear. The DA wouldn't have been doing his job if he didn't bring all the charges.

More to the point, it's not even certain that the judge would have permitted the DA to drop charges outside a plea deal for anything but lack of evidence. When a plaintiff files a lawsuit, civil or criminal, he can't simply drop the case, in whole or in part, once the pleadings are closed without leave of court. Most of the time judges go along with this, as defendants are typically okay with it, but they don't have to. And if a prosecutor came to the judge and said "Look, I want to drop a bunch of these charges. We've got all the evidence we need to convict, and the defendant isn't pleading guilty, but we feel bad for the guy," the judge may well have said "No." Judges are appointed by the Virginia General Assembly, and a judge that lets that sort of thing slide would also likely be looking for alternate employment at the end of his term.

So once the charges were filed--which they basically had to be--and Blount refused to take any kind of deal, most of the other actors in the system may not have had a whole lot of options. The DA may not have been able to drop the charges, the judge might have felt constrained to deny that motion anyway, the jury didn't have any reasonable basis for not convicting the guy, and the judge didn't have much discretion in terms of sentencing given mandatory minimums. The criminal justice system does have a certain amount of flex to it, but defendants have to be willing to play ball before much of that flexibility becomes available.

You want to yell about something here, yell about mandatory minimum sentences. Judges usually don't like them. Even some prosecutors don't like them. Defense counsel like me certainly don't. But the voting public, and therefore legislators, do like them. There's your problem. The only bad actor here other than Blount is the voting public.
posted by valkyryn at 6:20 AM on November 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


When someone says to a child, "hey, want to come along while I mess this guy up?" a child doesn't have the same capacity that you or I have to predict the things that could go wrong, or even to think clearly about why such an act might be wrong.

Anyone who does not understand that is not a child, they are ill.

The plea bargain he was offered was unjust. Why that was doesn't seem to have been addressed. Why 18 and not 10 years?

Would see this as unfair if he had rejected a 10 year plea?
posted by fistynuts at 6:29 AM on November 25, 2013


We'd have to increase the size and budget of the court system, prosecutors' offices, and public defenders' offices by at least an order of magnitude.

Nope. We'd need to scale back all the agencies like the DEA, FBI, ATF, etc. that produce all the suspects for the court system but do virtually nothing to actually make anyone safer.

There are no plea bargains, or severely restricted plea bargains, throughout Europe, but law enforcement is generally far more effective there. There isn't much deterrent effect in preventing crimes like armed robbery, mostly it's your social safety net's failures that cause it.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:30 AM on November 25, 2013


When a plaintiff files a lawsuit, civil or criminal, he can't simply drop the case, in whole or in part, once the pleadings are closed without leave of court.

A word more about this. In my state anyway, once charges are filed, the DA is required to seek leave of court to drop any of them, and needs to present a reasonable basis for doing so. I highly doubt that a trial judge would think that "We think this guy is guilty of too many charges, so we're going to drop some of them" would satisfy the judge. If it did, that judge would likely be in trouble come election season.*

*Virginia judges are appointed by their legislature, but Pennsylvania judges are elected and stand for retention every so often.
posted by valkyryn at 6:31 AM on November 25, 2013


Nope. We'd need to scale back all the agencies like the DEA, FBI, ATF, etc. that produce all the suspects for the court system but do virtually nothing to actually make anyone safer.

Pardon me for saying so, but that's just f*cking ignorant. The DEA, FBI, ATF, etc., all federal agencies, are responsible for identifying a tiny, tiny fraction of all criminal defendants in this country. The vast, vast majority are identified by state and local police departments. And they're for things like domestic abuse, DUI, assault, theft, robbery, etc. Completely ending the "War on Drugs" wouldn't scratch the surface of the problem we're talking about. People who beat up their girlfriends, go on high-speed chases while tanked, and hold up convenience stores would need to be arrested and charged with their crimes regardless whether or not we legalized drugs.

There are no plea bargains, or severely restricted plea bargains, throughout Europe

So. . . The UK doesn't count as part of Europe then? Because it totally happens there.

As to the Continent. . . that's because they have an inquisitorial system rather than an adversarial system. It's not that plea bargaining isn't allowed, it's that plea bargaining wouldn't make any kind of sense given the way criminal cases are litigated. Totally different set of procedures. Making that kind of shift would require re-designing the American criminal justice system from the ground up, and that's just not realistic. Besides, the adversarial system we've got has its advantages too.

law enforcement is generally far more effective there.

If you want to come up with some actual evidence, you're welcome to do so, but I'm not going to bother engaging with such a sweeping assertion if you can't even be arsed to back it up with anything.
posted by valkyryn at 6:39 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd scale back local law enforcement as well, just not as dramatically. Again crime is caused by socioeconomic issues, not prevented by deterrents.

So. . . The UK doesn't count as part of Europe then? Because it totally happens there.

Correct, the U.K. does not count as part of Europe in colloquial usage, but..

"Plea bargaining in Magistrates' Court trials is permitted only to the extent that the prosecutors and the defence can agree that the defendant will plead guilty to some charges and the prosecutor will drop the remainder. However, although this is not conducting a plea bargain, in cases before the Crown Court, the defence can request an indication from the judge of the likely maximum sentence that would be imposed should the defendant decide to plead guilty."

"In the case of hybrid offences in England and Wales, the decision whether to deal with a case in Magistrates Court or Crown Court is not made by magistrates until after a plea has been entered. A defendant is thus unable to plead guilty in exchange for having a case dealt with in Magistrates' Court (which has lesser sentencing powers)."


There are jurisdictions with both the inquisitorial system and plea bargaining, not much different from under the adversarial system really, well plea bargains exist bypass the whole system. France even lets the prosecutor propose a sentence, but limits the total requested jail time to one year, and the judge retains the final say. It's extremely controversial that France allows plea bargains.

If you want to come up with some actual evidence, you're welcome to do so, ...

Very few people locked up. Very few robberies. Very few murders. etc. You'll need a twisted definition of effective to claim the U.S. does better.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:01 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


valkyryn: "So. . . The UK doesn't count as part of Europe then?"
Certainly not when we're talking about legal matters.
posted by brokkr at 7:32 AM on November 25, 2013


I'd expect that plea bargains do seriously long term damage the legal system's legitimacy as well.

Imagine your acquaintance commits a crime. Do you (a) reassess his social status or (b) just take his side and assume the legal system is somehow wrong? If he goes to trial and loses, all the facts some out, increasing the odds that you hear an unbiased story, encounter people who reassessed his social status already, etc. If otoh he plea bargains, we'd expect that nobody from your social circle ever hears the facts of the case, and worse they all hear about the prosecutor bullying him into the deal.

Also, humans almost innately revere standing up to bullies, maybe not enough to pass on the plea deal like Trayvion, but maybe enough to commit the same crime.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:57 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd expect that plea bargains do seriously long term damage the legal system's legitimacy as well.

So does letting most crimes go uncharged and unpunished, which is what your proposal would require.

Look, I get that there are problems here, but (1) they aren't what you think they are, and (2) they won't be fixed by your proposals.

I'm going to leave it at that, because I'm increasingly convinced that you don't know enough about the American criminal justice system to make further engagement on my part productive. I have court this afternoon.
posted by valkyryn at 7:59 AM on November 25, 2013


If we don't have the resources to try even a fraction of the people we convict and throw in prison, that's a huge problem that needs fixing by means other than throwing people in prison without trial. Either give more resources to the courts and prosecutors so they can deal with the amount of people being arrested, decriminalize a bunch of stuff to reduce the burden on them, or both. Preferably both. But the fact that the plea bargain system exists doesn't mean it's worth sticking with.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:05 AM on November 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


Either give more resources to the courts and prosecutors so they can deal with the amount of people being arrested, decriminalize a bunch of stuff to reduce the burden on them, or both. Preferably both.

I'm in favor of both, though decriminalization wouldn't do as much as you probably think it would. We're not going to decriminalize assault, theft, robbery, DUI, etc., and there's more than enough of that stuff going on to keep the criminal courts packed to the bursting point. All of my clients are in state court, and most of them are facing charges that wouldn't be on anyone's list for things to decriminalize.

But the fact that the plea bargain system exists doesn't mean it's worth sticking with.

"Plea bargain system"? Not sure what you're talking about, to be honest. The fact that most convictions don't result from jury trials? Well, okay, but the reason for that isn't anything to do with the existence of plea bargaining as such. The plea bargain is a fine and useful tool in the world of criminal procedure. Indeed, if a defendant wants to avoid trial--which he might for a wide variety of entirely legitimate reasons having nothing to do with what you're complaining about--how else do you suggest that he might do so? It's no more fair to make a defendant go to trial who doesn't want to than it is to "punish" defendants for insisting going to trial. The fact that plea bargains exist is not why we are where we are. Other things have made the plea bargain take undue prominence in our current system, but that's no reason to eliminate the plea bargain entirely.

For instance: maybe he wants to avoid the publicity. Maybe he's an unsympathetic enough character (or a racial minority) that justifiably thinks a jury is going to hang him, whatever the evidence. Maybe he realizes he's going to be convicted regardless of what happens and wants to start serving his sentence now rather than a few months from now. Maybe he's living in his car because he's temporarily banned from entering his apartment pending the resolution of the charges, which ban would be lifted upon conviction whether or not he goes to trial, and he just wants to go home. Any of these could be reasons for entering a guilty plea without any kind of deal that have nothing to do with the issues we're talking about.
posted by valkyryn at 9:17 AM on November 25, 2013


valkyryn: "So. . . The UK doesn't count as part of Europe then?"
Certainly not when we're talking about legal matters.


Really? Where's that written down? The fact is that plea bargains are a part of an adversarial system of justice. If you'd prefer that the defendant have few rights (like in Continental Europe), you're welcome to it. But I prefer having my own lawyer and a judge as a neutral, not a prosecutor and judge at the same time.

Anyone who thinks countries without a jury system or the right to avoid self-incrimination ought to have their head examined.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:47 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, if you think European countries without a jury and the right to avoid self-incrimination are better models, that's crazy.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:02 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


though decriminalization wouldn't do as much as you probably think it would. We're not going to decriminalize assault, theft, robbery, DUI, etc., and there's more than enough of that stuff going on to keep the criminal courts packed to the bursting point

I dunno. At the very least, it would no longer be in the bucket of things that can be used to up sentences. If there's someone facing charges on (for example) car theft, but they also have a record of arrests/convictions for possession, I would think that that record would be used against them (habitual offender and all that).

The charts on this page are just fucking depressing. If an alien got to see these somehow I wouldn't blame them for assuming that there must be something in the American culture that breeds many more criminals than most other nations on Earth.
posted by rtha at 10:16 AM on November 25, 2013


I'm not against guilty pleas, I'm against plea deals, wherein a defendant gets a better sentence in return for a guilty plea and nothing else (there's benefit in trading leniency for cooperation against accomplices. Here, the accomplices were all pleading guilty, and even if they hadn't, their guilt was just as clear as Travion's). The way it works now, if you're arrested and assert innocence, you face a much harsher sentence than someone who faces the same charge(s) but pleads guilty, solely because you didn't "play ball." That's the price you pay to invoke a constitutional right (and to preserve your right to appeal). How is that just? It may be a symptom of a larger problem, but it's a shitty symptom and it wrecks people's lives.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:32 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ironmouth: "Sorry, if you think European countries without a jury and the right to avoid self-incrimination are better models, that's crazy."

Care to back that up with statistics on crime and incarceration rates? Because when I look at statistics on crime and punishment in the USA I really don't see anything to even faintly justify the confidence that it's better than Civil Law systems evidenced in this thread.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 11:20 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is definite value to a trained advocate defending an accused in front of a jury of their peers, Ironmouth, but those rule came about to resist prosecutorial abuses. on-adversarial systems invented different albeit similar rules, including measures that keep prosecutors and judges more impartial.

There is no way you know if "letting [more] crimes go uncharged and unpunished" delegitimizes the legal system, valkyryn, actually evidence suggests a "complicate opposite" with respect to recreational drug use in Portugal.

We might ideally want a one sided adversarial system where the defendant got representation, but no officer of the court benefited career-wise from a conviction. Europe has many mixes between adversarial and inquisitive, none of which I understand.

In the U.S., we have a perfect storm of evil in our judicial system : prosecutors are permitted broad powers to bully defendants into pleas, prosecutors benefit career-wise from convictions, prosecutors both lobby politicians and later become politicians, increasing their power to bully defendants, politicians profit from keeping citizens fearful, citizens react strongly to fear mongering, especially the quietly racial variety, etc.

We cannot fix our system by reforming a few sentencing guidelines. We must address the factors actually causing this storm. If you end the drug war, prosecutors and politicians will find another avenue of fear mongering, ala the war on terror.

Amongst the causal factors, the easiest point to address is the prosecutor's broad powers to bully defendants into pleas deals. And removing plea bargaining doesn't really hinder prosecutors much, just makes them choose their cases more wisely.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:30 PM on November 25, 2013




We offered you 18 years, time enough for you to reflect and mature beyond whatever adolescent idiocy drove you to this violent path.

Yeah, 18 years in jail will definitely lead to reflection and maturation.

hahahahahaha

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

ugh
posted by FatherDagon at 1:06 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


removing plea bargaining doesn't really hinder prosecutors much, just makes them choose their cases more wisely.

Wrong. Do you have any idea how many cases come through your standard DA's office in a given year? Hundreds. Do you know how long it takes to try a criminal case? At least a day, call it a mode of two, but up to a week for something like a homicide. And a lawyer--a good one anyway--spends at least as much time preparing for trial in the week before as the trial itself will take. Really, even the best prosecutor can only realistically take two cases to trial in a month, and that would be considered an absolutely ridiculous workload by current standards. That same prosecutor probably handles upwards of a hundred cases a year today, trying maybe a case every other month, tops.

And the key factor here is that the state has something like 180 days to a year from the filing of the charges to bring the case to trial. Sixth Amendment right to speedy trial. If trial isn't conducted within that time, the case gets dismissed.*

So, what, pray tell, do you suggest we do with the 95% of cases that currently settle, i.e., are pled out? Not bring them? That hardly seems ideal, given that something like half of prisoners currently in jail are there for violent crimes (i.e., not drugs). Throw in more DUIs than most people care to think about, and really, we're talking about an enormous number of cases that simply couldn't be brought without radically increasing the number of prosecutors available.

There is no simple fix to this problem. Pretending that there is is radically naive.

*Unless the defendant asked for the delay. Only makes sense.
posted by valkyryn at 1:17 PM on November 25, 2013


Asking from ignorance, not snark: How do countries that don't have the plea system the US has manage their carjackers and armed robbers and drunk drivers without either just letting them go or drowning their court systems or becoming crime-ridden hellholes?
posted by rtha at 1:55 PM on November 25, 2013


How do countries that don't have the plea system the US has manage their carjackers and armed robbers and drunk drivers without either just letting them go or drowning their court systems or becoming crime-ridden hellholes?

A lot of them skimp on what Americans tend to regard as essential civil liberties, particularly the right to a speedy trial. In the US, charges for most non-homicide offenses need to be brought within two or so years of the date of the offense, and prosecutors only have a year or so to conclude that case. Less if the defendant is being detained pre-trial. None of that seems to be true in Europe. Criminal investigations can last for years after charges are filed, and you can spend most of that time in jail if you aren't careful. Cursory investigation on my part indicates that this is true in France, Italy, and Germany, at the very least.

Many European countries have a limited right against self-incrimination, and to the extent that one exists it's frequently implied by European conventions rather than national law, and national courts frequently don't recognize it. In short: you can actually do jail time for failing to produce evidence against yourself.

All of these would seem to explain, at least in part, why the European criminal justice systems don't seem to be quite as overwhelmed as the US one seems to be. They don't have the same protections for criminal defendants, and they're free to take as much time as they like. Prosecutor busy this year? Sorry, your trial might not be for another year or two.

As far as why there isn't widespread disintegration, a few points. First, compared to the US, a lot of European countries are kind of lawless. On a per capita basis you're more likely to be murdered in the US than in most of Europe, but you're far more likely to be robbed or assaulted in Europe than in the US. Property crimes are actually significantly more common in places like the UK and Italy than they are in the US. The US also has the highest perceived efficiency of its police activities in the world, with the closest Continental European nation--Austria--coming in significantly lower. Italy is almost laughable. And that's not even bringing corruption into it. It's rampant in Southern and Eastern Europe and far more common even in places like France and Germany than it is in the US.

In short: some of the things that people like me are saying would happen if we made some of the suggested changes are actually happening in Europe right now. There are a lot of crimes that simply don't get any kind of law enforcement attention, and there's much less confidence that anyone will actually do anything about law breakers. Those saying that Europe obviously has a better system that we should obviously emulate aren't really looking at the numbers. They do some things better, granted, but there are trade-offs.
posted by valkyryn at 2:49 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks. Food for thought.
posted by rtha at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2013


valkyryn: "On a per capita basis you're more likely to be murdered in the US than in most of Europe, but you're far more likely to be robbed or assaulted in Europe than in the US."
Robberies per 100,000 population:
...
11. Belgium 211.4
12. Spain 201.2
13. Portugal 197.3
...
18. United States 146.4
...
(rest of Europe follows)
Ironmouth: "valkyryn: "So. . . The UK doesn't count as part of Europe then?"
Certainly not when we're talking about legal matters.

Really? Where's that written down?
"
Distribution of common law (red) vs civil law (blue) legal systems.

UK and Ireland are very unlike continental Europe, not only with regards to their legal system, but also when you look at traditional customs and other aspects of ethnology and sociology.
posted by brokkr at 3:49 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


One other point--In Europe, you are presumed guilty and the burden is on you to prove you are innocent.

Also, people who think plea bargaining doesn't happen in Europe? It does. In 2004, the French Government passed the comparution sur reconnaissance préalable de culpabilité, which allows for plea bargaining.

Germany has also been using them lately, but it is difficult, because there is no guilty plea in Civil Law countries.

Italy now also has plea bargaining.

All this from Wikipedia, of course.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:53 PM on November 25, 2013


Robberies per 100,000 population:
...
11. Belgium 211.4
12. Spain 201.2
13. Portugal 197.3
...
18. United States 146.4
...
(rest of Europe follows)


So Valkyrn was right on the robberies. There are more per capita in a lot of Europe. Significantly more. Note also, every other country listed is a civil law country.

Ironmouth: "valkyryn: "So. . . The UK doesn't count as part of Europe then?"
Certainly not when we're talking about legal matters.

Really? Where's that written down?"
Distribution of common law (red) vs civil law (blue) legal systems.

UK and Ireland are very unlike continental Europe, not only with regards to their legal system, but also when you look at traditional customs and other aspects of ethnology and sociology.


That doesn't mean Europe is supposed to exclude the UK. I am a practicing litigator and have a MA in Modern European History. I own a copy of the BGB and I can read it. The fact that some countries in Europe have a civil law system doesn't mean that the UK and Ireland are supposed to therefore be excluded from Europe because someone thinks it helps their argument, which is my point.

So we've learned there are plea bargains of a sort in Europe, you rarely get a jury, you can be forced to self-incriminate yourself, you are presumed guilty, and your judge is also the prosecutor.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:01 PM on November 25, 2013


Also, much more current and detailed stats (pdf): A

Assault (per 100,000 persons)
Scotland 1487
Sweden 927
England and Wales 730
Belgium 718
Israel 641
Germany 630
Finland 615
Chile 576
Luxembourg 476
Ireland 353
Netherlands 352
Iceland 346
Australia 327
Portugal 312
France 310
United States 262
Mexico 218
Turkey 218
Denmark 191
Spain 177
Korea 172
Canada 170
Czech Republic 162
Hungary 124
Switzerland 117
Italy 110

That puts almost every country in Europe behind the US.

Burglary (per 100,000 persons):

Denmark 1939
New Zealand 1386
Austria 1283
Iceland 1117
Sweden 1029
Australia 1017
England and Wales 986
Chile 965
Belgium 891
Switzerland 843
Slovenia 746
Northern Ireland 717
United States 715
Israel 611
Canada 611
Ireland 610
Luxembourg 573
Czech Republic 525
France 513

Vehicle Theft

New Zealand 466
Sweden 433
Italy 384
Israel 362
Denmark 338
France 333
Canada 321
Ireland 298
Australia 272
United States 258
Norway 249
Greece 236
Finland 228
England and Wales 215
Portugal 211
Belgium 205

Robbery:

Belgium 1762
Spain 1188
Mexico 607
Chile 456
Portugal 192
France 181
England and Wales 137
United States 133
Italy 108
Sweden 103
Canada 96
Netherlands 84


Jesus, Belgium! Now I get why Dr. Evil is from there.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:06 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


What makes the vehicle theft stats so weird is that the US has way more cars per capita than anybody else, and parts of Europe still manage to have more vehicle thefts per capita.

Riddle me that.
posted by valkyryn at 4:56 PM on November 25, 2013


American falls smack dab within the European range for burglary, excluding the outlier Denmark of course. Robbery has two crazy high outliers with little in common, but otherwise everyone is packed right together.

Those assault numbers otoh largely jive with my impression of "bar fight culture". And intentional homicide has the U.S. towering above most European nations though. Are the assault numbers simply that Americans avoid starting as many fights with strangers who might carry a fire arm?

Anyway, there is nothing here to justify the U.S.'s insane incarceration rate, also you'd obviously prefer the European assault rates over the American homicide rates. I wonder what our incarceration rate looks like after you control for sentencing though.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:49 PM on November 25, 2013


Ironmouth: "In Europe, you are presumed guilty and the burden is on you to prove you are innocent. "
What is this "Europe" you're talking about? Which countries? (We're not talking about civil litigation here.) The principle of innocent until proven guilty is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe, and the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is explicitly enshrined in the constitutions of France, Italy and Russia and implicitly in the German Grundgesetz.

I imagine that you need to go to Belarus or something like that to find otherwise - and if you're extrapolating from a post-Soviet dictatorship to a general "Europe" then you're being quite disingenious.
Ironmouth: "That doesn't mean Europe is supposed to exclude the UK. I am a practicing litigator and have a MA in Modern European History. I own a copy of the BGB and I can read it. The fact that some countries in Europe have a civil law system doesn't mean that the UK and Ireland are supposed to therefore be excluded from Europe because someone thinks it helps their argument, which is my point."
I'm not saying it to help my argument, I'm just saying that the UK and Ireland is very different from continental Europe in most respects.
Ironmouth: "So Valkyrn was right on the robberies. There are more per capita in a lot of Europe."
If by "a lot of Europe" you mean three countries comprising about 9% of Europe's population, yes.

As for the assault stats, here's a bit of discussion on that.

(And yes, the burglary rate in Denmark is ridiculously high. The Danish police effectively doesn't investigate burglaries or bike theft, and everybody knows that.)
posted by brokkr at 2:04 AM on November 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anyway, there is nothing here to justify the U.S.'s insane incarceration rate

Oh, no doubt. I think the only people in prison should be lifers without the possibility of parole, i.e., people that we might otherwise execute if we still did that. In other words, a tiny fraction of the people currently in prison actually belong there.

But that's neither here nor there. I've never argued that Blount's sentence was appropriate.
posted by valkyryn at 2:36 AM on November 26, 2013


valkyryn: "What makes the vehicle theft stats so weird is that the US has way more cars per capita than anybody else, and parts of Europe still manage to have more vehicle thefts per capita.

Riddle me that.
"

A guess: There are two reasons to steal a car 1) you need a conveyance to take you somewhere (even if just for a joy ride) 2) you are stealing the car to sell for parts. because per capita ownership is so high people in the first group are much more likely to already have a vehicle available to them so don't have to steal one. Including teenagers who can borrow or "borrow" their parent's cars.
posted by Mitheral at 5:44 AM on November 26, 2013


valkyryn: "What makes the vehicle theft stats so weird is that the US has way more cars per capita than anybody else, and parts of Europe still manage to have more vehicle thefts per capita. Riddle me that."
Many vehicle thefts in NW Europe are organized criminals stealing (relatively) high end cars, which are then transported to Eastern Europe where they're sold to people who don't ask too many questions. Unless the cops manage to catch them by chance en route on the German Autobahn, the police doesn't have many options when it comes to finding e.g. a stolen Dutch Mercedes somewhere in Russia.
posted by brokkr at 5:51 AM on November 26, 2013


Recall, the Hoover originally directed the FBI towards stolen car cases because, at that time stolen cars were usually found eventually. This meant the FBI could artificially inflate their solved crime statistics without actually doing any work.

I've always imagined the ATF, and later the DEA, came into existence largely due to Hoover's policy of directing the FBI towards easily solved riskless cases, i.e. the FBI never wanted to deal with people who might posses guns. Yet conversely, there is perhaps a lot more infrastructure for dealing with car theft in the U.S., partially because we have so many cars historically, but also thanks to Hoover's political games.

As brokkr said, the U.S. has more homogeneous law enforcement for vehicles since you cannot just drive to Mexico quite as easily as to Poland, but I'd wage we've especially homogeneous law enforcement for vehicle theft, thanks to Hoover.

And obviously stolen cars require serious infrastructure to chop, unlike say selling or even making recreational drugs.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:59 AM on November 26, 2013


Many vehicle thefts in NW Europe are organized criminals stealing (relatively) high end cars, which are then transported to Eastern Europe where they're sold to people who don't ask too many questions.

That would tend to explain it. Being located next to a relatively lawless/corrupt jurisdiction doesn't do wonders for local law enforcement.

That notion might explain something else I've wondered about. Human trafficking seems to be is a much larger problem in Europe than it is in the US, and I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that Eastern Europe and Russia have a reputation for not giving much of a damn about it. Not to mention Southeast Asia, which while not exactly next door, is still reachable by road. As far as stats go, Germany and France both have more convictions for trafficking-related offenses than the US does. And it's not like the US is lax in its enforcement either. I can say from personal knowledge, i.e., being friends with federal prosecutors, that human trafficking cases are high on the list of federal law enforcement priorities. It's just not as common.
posted by valkyryn at 6:47 AM on November 27, 2013


Also language boundaries : Too much risk folks speak English. Also the rich middle eastern nations engages heavily in human trafficking, establishing the business model. etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:53 AM on November 27, 2013


Car theft and burglary rates are high in Australia and New Zealand because I'm bored.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:44 PM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


brokkr: "Many vehicle thefts in NW Europe are organized criminals stealing (relatively) high end cars, which are then transported to Eastern Europe where they're sold to people who don't ask too many questions. Unless the cops manage to catch them by chance en route on the German Autobahn, the police doesn't have many options when it comes to finding e.g. a stolen Dutch Mercedes somewhere in Russia."

That's how a majority of the cars in Albania are Mercedes-Benzes, with the added twist that some of the owners are in on it for insurance fraud money.
posted by Copronymus at 4:24 PM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


What makes the vehicle theft stats so weird is that the US has way more cars per capita than anybody else, and parts of Europe still manage to have more vehicle thefts per capita.

Riddle me that.


The cars are shipped out of Western Europe, naturally.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:31 PM on November 27, 2013


He could have avoided this by not robbing 30 people at gunpoint. Ever been robbed at gunpoint?

Yes, I have. I still don't think that the sentence handed down is in any way just.
posted by jaduncan at 8:52 AM on December 1, 2013


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