Our criminal justice system is predicated on a system of guilty pleas. Trials are a rarity (though they still comprise a majority of CAL’s cases) with over 95% of felony cases resolved by guilty pleas in our jurisdiction – the Bronx and Manhattan. Most guilty pleas are entered in a matter of minutes with some sentencing proceedings lasting even less time. Almost all defendants are told they must waive their rights to appeal as part of the sentencing bargain. Appeals in plea case can, therefore, be a challenge.
At CAL, though, clients who have pleaded guilty are treated with the same respect and dignity as all of our clients. Their cases are carefully examined, typically by a supervising attorney or a senior appellate attorney with extensive experience with plea cases. Waivers of the right to appeal are aggressively challenged. Predicate convictions, particularly those from out-of-state or where no post-release supervision was imposed, are scrutinized. Refunds are sought for fees that violate the ex post facto clause. Excessive sentences and illegal sentences are always litigated.
To ensure that we do no harm, risks associated with plea vacatures are identified and discussed at length with our clients before proceeding. Our clients, with full advice and consultation, make the decisions on whether to seek withdrawal of their pleas.
Although commonly done by other providers in the plea context, so-called Anders or no merits briefs are rarely filed at CAL. We believe that those briefs represent a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship. We would rather spend our time meeting with our clients, discussing the issues with them, and jointly deciding on the course of action, instead of writing a brief that takes a position adverse to our client.
The full panoply of CAL resources are also available to clients who have pleaded guilty. The Padilla project works with our non-citizen plea clients, while our parole advocacy and reentry programs work to smooth the transition upon our clients’ release. Conditions of confinement are addressed and our social worker is available to meet with family members or recently-released clients. In short, CAL’s commitment to legal excellence and to assist our clients whereever possible remains unwavering for our plea clients as with all our clients.
David Klem and Jody Ratner coordinate the Plea Project.