Covering Crime Special Report: Criminal Justice System Part 2

Court Sign

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Part 2 in a 2-part series profiling several aspects of the criminal justice system, from a crime, through charges being filed, through sentencing, and answering common complaints raised by the public about punishments not being seen as strong enough.

View Part 1

MASON CITY, IA- “I think if people really knew the truth of what is going on in these cases day in and out, the big picture, I think most of them would say well now that I know that I understand,” said District Court Judge James Drew.

The legal system is pretty complex.

There’s a whole lot more that goes into getting punishment for doing something wrong then the typical person knows.

As we showed you earlier this week, not everyone agrees with the results of the criminal justice system
and now, we’re taking a look at how some of those results are determined in criminal cases..specifically through a common practice called plea bargains.

A plea deal is basically an agreement between the prosecutor and defendant in a criminal case.
It usually involves the defendant getting a lesser charge or charges dropped if they plead guilty.
It’s meant to give the criminal a second chance at rehabilitation.
I’m finding out how well they work and if it’s really the best option for those who commit crimes.

Nathan Glidden is no stranger to the criminal justice system.
He’s been arrested and taken to jail at least a dozen times in his 28 years, he’s had three OWI’s with the most serious event taking place last May after leaving a bar in north Iowa.

“So I decided to run. I got a bunch of charges; assault on an officer, attempt to dis-arm, resisting arrest, public intoxication,” said Nathan.

Nathan would have three felonies on his record by now, but instead, he has zero because he accepted a plea bargain, in which he says prosecutors had no choice but to give him.

“Mainly because if they tried to prosecute me with all the charges, they were going to lose in court because they had no proof,” said Nathan.

They dropped the attempt to dis-arm charge once he pleaded guilty to the assault and public intoxication.
That’s known as a plea bargain. They’re used often in criminal court cases.

“There are situations that I have to plea bargain. I have to make an offer to them that makes sense for both parties. It’s impossible to take every case to trial. You can’t do that,” said Cerro Gordo County Attorney Carlyle Dalen.

Dalen said these deals are a necessary part of the judicial system.

“We always have to keep in mind that the prisons in Iowa right now are full, and so every time I send someone down there or the judge sends somebody down there, somebody is coming out the back door,” said Dalen.

It works like this..once a defendant is charged, their lawyer typically asks for a plea.
It’s then the county attorney’s job to decide if the situation warrants a plea bargain recommendation and then a judge has to make a decision.
But according to Iowa law, a judge can only do that if a criminal gets prison or a probation sentence.

“Ultimately our goals are.. number one, obviously we want to keep society protected, but we don’t want this person to come back,” said District Court Judge James Drew.

That decision is based on several different factors:
–The judges and attorneys always look at the evidence they have to prove their case if it went to trial.
–They also look at the severity of the crime committed. There’s less leniency for violent acts.
–The defendant’s criminal history is also evaluated, such as how many previous offenses they’ve have.
–Finally, they decide if the suspect can be rehabilitated.

“The ultimate goal is that they’ve committed a crime, they’ve taken punishment for that crime, but they are not going to do it again,” said Dalen.

According to Judge Drew, the community has resources that are more effective than the prison system when it comes to helping people overcome their problems.

“Whether it’s mental health issues, substance abuse issues, employment, family; support for all of those things are available at the community level,” said Judge Drew.

Nathan said he is grateful for the plea bargain because he doesn’t have a felony on his record.

“It’s given me more chances to make myself better and learn, we all make mistakes, and we all usually make the same mistake twice. It’s just a learning process,” said Glidden

But, he’s not sold on the idea that the court’s decision helped him.

Natalie said, “People are going to wonder are you rehabilitated after you go this plea bargain? What would your answer be?”

Nathan said, “No, I still have an alcohol problem.”

In fact, he even admits the amount of jail time he was faced with initially, far exceeds what he’s actually had to serve.

“So it’s a second chance,” said Natalie

“Yes,” said Nathan.

“Do you think you’ve earned it?”

“No, not really, I’ve been in trouble quite a bit.”

So why continue with a system that doesn’t quite work for everyone?

Judge Drew said, “We are not going to have perfection and there are going to be situations that it may appear somebody should have gone to prison when they didn’t, but I’m confident in saying that mistakes, if any, are rare on this end and I think it’s working.”

Those who recommend and decide who gets those bargains say the practice is saving taxpayers money by not going to trial and provides more time to keep serious criminals off the street.

“It’s not a perfect system, I’ll be the first to sit here and say that. It’s not a perfect system system and I know a lot of times the general public get very frustrated and think that people are not taking responsibility for their actions, but we’ve had a lot of success in our major cases lately,” said Dalen.

As for Nathan, he’s heading back to jail again soon to serve time for his third OWI charge. He will be expected to remain behind bars for one month.
He hopes that experience will be the final kick he needs to straighten up for good.

“I hope I don’t drink and drive anymore, because it’s pretty much costing me most of my life so far,” said Nathan.

County attorneys  say, in many situations, due to lack of evidence or the nature of the case, they make plea recommendations to make sure the defendant gets some form of charge
The Cerro Gordo County Attorney’s Office said in the past three years, they have tripled the number of cases they take to trial.

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