John Oliver explains the problems with prosecutors, notes you can usually vote the bad ones out

John Oliver tackles prosecutors
(Image credit: Screenshot/YouTube/Last Week Tonight)

On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver shone a little light on an important person in your community who, if you are lucky, you don't think about very often, if ever. "Whenever we talk about criminal justice reform, we tend to just talk about policing, public defenders, judges, and prisons, and skip over a crucial element there: prosecutors, the attorneys who work for the federal, state, and local government and bring cases to trial," he said. "Prosecutors decide whether you get charged and what you get charged with, and therefore heavily influence what kind of sentence you could face."

People tend to overlook the power prosecutors have, so "let's start with a truly incredible fact here: The vast majority of the time, your fate is not decided by a judge or a jury of your peers, because nearly 95 percent of the cases prosecutors decide to bring end up with the defendant pleading guilty," Oliver said. Judges are mostly resigned to this system, "because at least plea bargains keep the system moving," he explained, and prosecutors have a lot of tools to get innocent people to plead guilty.

For the 5 percent who opt for a trial, prosecutors control the case files, sometimes "ambush" the defense with exculpatory evidence right before the trial, or they never hand it over — and when they are caught withholding evidence, Oliver found only one district attorney ever held to account, barely. He gave some egregious examples of misconduct and suggested some legislative fixes, but argued the easiest way to hold prosecutors accountable is to elect reform-minded district attorneys. Which requires a little bit of research. "Most people know as much about their local D.A. as they know about their local Cheesecake Factory manager," he said: "Chances are, you don't know who they are, and if you do, it's probably because something truly terrible has happened." There is NSFW language. Watch below. Peter Weber

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