July 1, 2015

Plea Bargaining

pleaPlea bargaining is one of the most used aspects of our criminal justice system. Although we are taught in school that a jury trial is the cornerstone of our judicial system, more than 94% of criminal cases never reach a jury. They settle through plea bargains in which defendants agree to plead guilty in exchange for reduced sentences.

There are two types of plea bargains. The prosecution has discretion to change the length of the sentence or the crime the defendant pleads to. Plea deals allow the prosecution to avoid the expense of running a trial such as calling in witnesses, bringing in a jury, etc. Meantime, a defendant admits responsibility without the risk of serving the maximum sentence.

In recent years, the plea bargaining system has been heavily debated. In a 2012 Supreme Court decision, Lafler v. Cooper, Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent describes plea bargaining: “In the United States, we have plea bargaining a-plenty, but until today it has been regarded as a necessary evil. It presents grave risks of prosecutorial overchargingthat effectively compels an innocent defendant to avoid massive risk by pleading guilty to a lesser offense; and for guilty defendants it often — perhaps usually– results in a sentence well below what the law prescribes for the actual crime. But even so, we accept plea bargaining because many believe that without it our long and expensive process of criminal trial could not sustain the burden imposed on it, and our system of criminal justice would grind to a halt.” But a prosecution does not have to make a plea bargain offer. He/she may take all of the cases to trial if time and money allows. But it would be impossible to try every case because the District Attorney’s office has finite resources. Further, every defendant cannot receive the maximum sentence because there are a finite number of jail cells.

One cannot truly say whether he would accept the plea bargain without being in the accused position. A recent study, The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma, revealed that more than half of the innocent participants were willing to falsely admit guilt in return for a benefit. These findings go against our gut feelings that we would not plead guilty if we were really innocent. Our justice system without plea deals would entirely collapse. But is it a fair system to have innocent people plead guilty?

It is not a surprise that defense attorneys negotiate with prosecutors in order to receive the best plea deal.  What people may not realize is that defense attorneys must also negotiate with their clients. The client makes the final decision on whether to accept the plea deal. Clients should realize that we fight for them regardless of their decision. We often forget that it might have been even more work to negotiate a favorable plea deal than preparing for a trial. Until our justice system is repaired and improved, the accused must rely on the experienced and competent defense attorneys to fight for a favorable plea deal or demand a trial.