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Plea deals used in many court cases

Plea bargains, to use the politically incorrect euphemism, are becoming a political hot potato during the Hubbard County election.

In part, the Enterprise is to blame for the public's confusion about the process.

Wednesday, an updated version of a burglary plea agreement didn't get into the newspaper, but is posted online. It had comments from County Attorney Don Dearstyne about what goes into the thought process behind a "plea offer."

Dearstyne had many useful comments and we regret that our print readers missed them in our haste to rewrite the story and get it to the printer.

There are a multitude of practical, legal, financial, evidentiary and humanitarian reasons prosecutors offer defense attorneys a "break."

And, Dearstyne said, sometimes there is no break at all. The plea offer is thus: Your client faces one count of robbery. He can plead to it or not. If he doesn't plead, we go to trial and you take your chances.

In the burglary case, from a practical standpoint, the two defendants' pleas made sense. Do we need to convict the suspects of all 20-odd counts when the sentence will be the same regardless of how many notches there are on a prosecutor's belt? Minnesota has answered that resoundingly, implementing sentencing guidelines that tie a prosecutor's hands - and often times the judiciary - meting out concurrent sentences.

Besides getting convictions on the most serious offenses, the burglars are bound to make restitution to all the victims, to each and every home illegally entered.

Taking each case to trial is expensive, time-consuming and a waste of taxpayer funds. And any prosecutor who says he or she will try every case is myopic.

The cost of witnesses, experts, forensic tests and juries can quickly overwhelm a small county.

Offering plea deals clears court dockets and the burdensome caseloads of both prosecutors and public defenders.

In an age of victims' rights, many families are instrumental in ending a criminal case. Their opinion is sought and considered. They can wield a heavy stick over a prosecutor's office. Settle this - now - is their message. Practical difficulties such as recalcitrant or unreliable witnesses, missing evidence, proof problems and speedy trial requests from defense lawyers can also determine the eventual outcome in a case.

In a recent case the defendant wanted a speedy trial. The key witness had left for Alaska and wanted nothing to do with the case.

To subpoena an out-of-state witness takes time and money going through that state's court system. The county must pay the cost of getting subpoenaed witnesses to appear. Should the prosecutor buy a round trip nonrefundable ticket with taxpayer money for a witness to fly back and maybe tank the case at trial? It's a gamble. Offer the deal.

Not every case is a slam-dunk and resolving it in some satisfactory way may be in the best interest of justice, since we rarely know what goes on behind the scenes.

No prosecutor can predict future recidivism or dangerousness of any suspect. We just have to trust and respect their instincts and experience in making the deal.