Defendants are routinely threatened with extreme sentences to coerce them into pleading guilty to lesser offenses -- this coercion is the primary way that prosecutors bypass Constitutional protections and speed defendants into prison.
But in this era of mass incarceration -- when our nation's prison population has quintupled in a few decades partly as a result of the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement -- these rights are, for the overwhelming majority of people hauled into courtrooms across America, theoretical. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.
"The truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used," said Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the libertarian Cato Institute. In other words: the system is rigged.
In the race to incarcerate, politicians champion stiff sentences for nearly all crimes, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws; the result is a dramatic power shift, from judges to prosecutors.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that threatening someone with life imprisonment for a minor crime in an effort to induce him to forfeit a jury trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial. Thirteen years later, in Harmelin v. Michigan, the court ruled that life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The problem isn't really with prosecutors though -- our legislators have given them an impossible task. We have way too many laws, and far too many people in prison.