Buying Leniency: Small-Scale and Widespread

In the criminal courts of Kennewick and Richland, in eastern Washington, people arrested for offenses such as drunk driving could routinely get a lenient sentence by contributing money to prosecutors' favorite charities. The practice came under criticism recently when money donated in Kennewick, Wash., went missing.

But similar arrangements may be widespread; a prominent defense lawyer in Wisconsin calls it the "dirty little secret" of criminal courts in America.

The National District Attorneys Association says it hasn't researched the prevalence of this practice, and it doesn't have any rules against it. Neither does the American Bar Association, though it's planning an ethics task force on the subject.

Many local officials defend the donation system, saying the money stays in city coffers, whereas court fines are often shared with the state. Kennewick City Attorney John Ziobro says he doesn't see the moral difference between donations and other kinds of court fines that are routinely negotiated with defendants.

While it's unfortunate that a defendant might be taken advantage of, the issue, he says, is little different from a defendant choosing between paying a fine or spending time in jail.

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