(Los Angeles Times/TNS) – Arthur and his friend had a fight one night in their apartment. The police came and spoke first to the friend, who claimed Arthur had battered him. They arrested Arthur, who told them that he had been attacked and had defended himself. In the courthouse lockup two days later, he told his appointed lawyer the same thing. His lawyer agreed that they should take the case to trial.
Arthur (whose name I have changed to protect his privacy) pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge and asked the judge to release him while awaiting the trial that would decide who was telling the truth. His lawyer explained that Arthur had no criminal record, was working two jobs, and had another place to stay so the fight would not be repeated. But the prosecutor argued that Arthur was too dangerous to be released, and the judge took the prosecutor’s side, setting a bail that Arthur couldn’t pay.
He would have to stay in jail for 30 more days before trial. He would lose his jobs and he feared exposure to violence, so he asked his lawyer if there was anything he could do to get out. His lawyer spoke to the prosecutor, who made him an offer — plead guilty now and get three years of probation, pay fines, attend classes and do community labor. Get out of jail right away, in other words, but accept a criminal record.
So Arthur changed his plea and took the deal. The prosecutor agreed to the immediate release of a man who had supposedly been too dangerous to set free just a few minutes earlier.
This case is not unusual; in California, it’s routine. Hundreds of times a day, people accused of crimes plead guilty, not because they don’t want a trial, but because the judge sets a bail they cannot pay, and they cannot risk the harm to their lives caused by spending days, weeks, even months in pretrial detention.