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For practitioners intimate with the mechanics of the criminal justice system, the “Frontline” documentary “The Plea” may not hold any revelations. Yet it provides a plangent reminder that the system is far from perfect. Airing on PBS channels Thursday, June 17, at 9 p.m., producer Ofra Bikel’s documentary points out early on that while the Sixth Amendment guarantees every citizen the right to a trial, about 95 percent of all people convicted of felonies nationwide cop a plea. “The system would collapse if every case that was filed in the criminal justice system were to be set for trial,” intones a Texas state judge. “The Plea” focuses on several heart-breaking cases in which the system, lubricated to process cases swiftly and efficiently, crushed hapless defendants in its gears. In Harris County, Texas, for example, Erma Faye Stewart, a single mother of two, was arrested in a major drug sweep based on evidence provided by an informant who was later discredited. She emphatically contends she was innocent of any wrongdoing. But faced with a choice of risking her chances at trial or accepting a plea bargain and 10 years’ probation in order to gain immediate release from jail, Stewart took the deal. Under the terms of her probation, Stewart was required to pay a monthly fee to her probation officer. According to “The Plea,” about four million people are on probation in the United States. And they are often required to fork over fines, court charges, and probation fees. In many jurisdictions, this money is relied on by local governments. “One of the corrupting influences in our courts is that many localities depend upon the courts as a major source of revenue,” says defense lawyer Steve Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “But when the courts are in pursuit of profit, that’s in conflict with being in pursuit of justice,” he adds. Three years into her probation period, Stewart fell behind in her probation payments and was evicted from her public housing. “The Plea” also tells the tale of a Brooklyn man, Charles Gampero Jr., who is badgered by a judge to accept a plea bargain for a murder he and the victim’s father maintain he didn’t commit. He languishes in prison still. “I look at [plea bargaining] as a necessary component in our criminal justice system, but [it] only works if you have experienced, competent defense attorneys, experienced, competent prosecutors, and a judge who will oversee, make sure this is done correctly,” says one jurist. “The Plea” shines the spotlight on a few cases where justice failed to be done. There are no doubt others.

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