John Oliver Describes How Prosecutors Have Made Courts as Sad and Futile as “AT&T’s Customer Service Hotline”

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In yesterday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver took shots at Donald Trump Jr. wandering in legal jeopardy, Paul Manafort’s awful fashion sense, and how prosecutors, despite being a mostly overlooked aspect of the criminal justice system, have a great deal of power that is very often abused.

Oliver talks about how the phrase “prosecutors will decide” is dropped so often in news stories that it becomes something you can blank out—not unlike “some restrictions apply”, “user agreement update”, or “Tyler Perry Presents”. In truth, however, prosecutors “decide whether you get charged, and what you get charged with, and therefore heavily influence what kind of sentence you could face”.

The host continues with some examples of this process gone wrong: nearly 95% of cases that prosecutors decide to prosecute end up with the defendant pleading guilty. “No trial, no innocent until proven guilty, just a prosecutor striking a deal behind closed deals”, says Oliver. Judges are resigned to the process, Judge Caprice Cosper points out, because the system would collapse otherwise. Basically, Oliver continues, the system only works if people give up, the “exact same model as AT&T’s customer service hotline.” “That’s right AT&T,” says Oliver, “you owners of HBO, longtime owners of unforgivably dogshit customer hotline.”

As many know, people plead guilty even when they’re innocent all the time. They might do this because they find themselves under the threat of charges piling up, what’s called a “trial penalty”. One man was told that a plea would mean the difference between 2 years and a life sentence. Finally, when one out of five people do go to trial, they might have to face discriminatory jury selection, the withholding of evidence until the last minute (Oliver calls this a higher stakes version of a high school student delivering a presentation on a book they haven’t read), the straight-up withholding of crucial evidence, and other factors that lead to wrongful conviction.

Oh, and there’s that thing where prosecutors found of misconduct resulting in wrongful conviction aren’t punished, and high conviction rates are rewarded.

The ultimate message of this Last Week Tonight segment is to encourage people to know who their district attorneys are, since many run uncontested for several terms. Oliver says that people know as much about their district attorney as they do their local Cheesecake Factory manager: “Chances are you don’t know who they are, and if you do, it’s probably because something truly terrible happened. But the truth is, like The Cheesecake Factory, prosecutors have the ability to ruin lives in a second.”

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