Plea bargains are arrangements made between prosecutors and defendants, sometimes with or without the full, open consult of the parties involved, in which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser and often entirely unrelated charge in exchange for a lenient sentence or agreement to drop other charges.
They are made for a number of reasons, such as saving the resources of the individual or public when it comes to a trial; ensuring a speedy resolution of cases; not subjecting accusers or the aggrieved to the horrors of reliving their experience; avoiding the possibility of not-guilty verdicts; and showing mercy to the accused.
Pleas are a common tool of the US judicial system. 97 percent of federal convictions are the result of plea deals while that number reaches 94 percent for state-level felony convictions.
These deals are often used for lesser offenses, too, such as speeding tickets whereby people plead guilty to not wearing a seat belt or having a parking infraction in order to not pay the larger fine or accrue penalty points.
Despite their abundance in and importance to the judicial system, plea bargains aren’t perfect.
Too often men of color, lesser income, and lesser education are improperly counseled, even manipulated, to pursue a plea deal even though they are innocent. This results in unmerited incarceration and years, if not decades lost, in a life already too short on this Earth.
And then there’s the other extreme – individuals who are likely guilty of a major crime get off Scot free and are allowed to continue the behaviors and actions that should have had them registered if not imprisoned.
We saw that very thing recently happen here in New York.
Two weeks ago, 55 year-old Ronald Rowcliffe was charged with sexually assaulting several scouts at the Massawepie Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks this summer and during the summers of 2017 and 2018.
The unmitigated evil of that is disgusting enough, but so is the fact that had the courts not utilized a plea he would not have passed the BSA’s background check and he wouldn’t have been able to work at the camp or be a scout leader in Brockport. And, he would have failed similar checks for driving bus for the Brockport School District from 2014 to 2017.
You see, this is not Rowcliffe’s first run-in with the law for allegedly abusing children and it was something he even did as a member of the law.
Most recently, in August of 2000, while a member of Holley’s Police force – a position of public trust --Rowcliffe was charged with 3 counts of endangering the welfare of a child after an investigation revealed he gave 3 boys -- ages 15, 16 and 16 -- haircuts in his home where he asked them to strip, shower and view porn.
Rowcliffe was allowed to plead guilty for something completely unrelated to defiling or preparing for abuse teenage boys: Unlawful possession of a noxious material, an outcome of pepper spray being released in his personal vehicle while off-duty. At the conclusion of a six-month adjournment and the associated treatment, the charges against him were dismissed.
Mind you, Rowcliffe had previously resigned from the Holley Police Department In 1988 after allegations involving inappropriate behavior with a teenage boy. The teen's parents declined to press charges against Rowcliffe at the time.
That said, given the track record, why was a plea deal utilized so easily? Why was it used it all? Couldn’t at least one of the three boys have gone ahead with the trial? Was the plea deal the court’s way of looking out for the police? How was a noxious material plea applied to his noxious behavior?
There are so many questions, these and many more, but they all lead back to one: What can we do as a just society to minimize plea bargains when it comes to individuals who are likely to commit their alleged crimes again and put the innocent, helpless and impressionable at risk?
By Rowcliffe not having a record, not being affixed with some sort of scarlet letter, he was allowed to volunteer for a youth organization and go on trips with kids, drive a school bus and gain the trust of children, and work at a resident camp where he was accused of committing heinous acts.
Understand, too, that those Adirondack crimes are only the known cases – how many more have gone underreported for the very reason we now have the Child Victims Act (that is, minors are afraid and ashamed to report sexual abuse)?
We’re better than that as a community, state, country, and people. We cannot allow sex offenders to plea down and dumb down their crimes. We need to know who they are and where they are (and if they assaulted or raped children it had better be in prison) so we can protect the precious children, our world’s future.
Think about this: This year, the state passed a Red Flag law that immediately, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, strips a gun owner of his access to his weapons if family or schools perceive a threat to safety. Yet, we don’t have a Red Flag law for sex offenders. They are still allowed to keep their, ahem, “weapon” and have access to their prey no matter how many flags go up.
How do we change this and save our kids from future Rowcliffes?
From the 16 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News