By: Dr. Betsy Matthews
Part 1: Does Plea Bargaining Deliver Justice?
Over 90 percent of the cases in criminal courts are resolved through plea bargains. Plea bargains involve the prosecutor agreeing to reduce the charge or recommending a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Plea bargaining is driven by several factors. First, if there are concerns about whether or not the case will hold up to cross-examination, a prosecutor is more likely to offer a plea than go to trial. The result is recorded as a conviction either way, so why not bargain. Second, workload issues factor into decisions for the defense and prosecution, with primacy being given to the efficient resolution of cases. Third, plea bargaining is driven by an “exchange system” between the prosecutor and the courts, police, and defense attorneys; deals are made to maintain the equilibrium of the courtroom workgroup.
During the plea bargaining process, prosecutors hold all the cards. Prosecutors use several strategies that allow them to offer a plea bargain without losing much. For example, a prosecutor might overcharge a suspect initially so that, in the end, they can offer a lesser charge that better matches the facts of the case; with the lesser charge, comes a lesser sentence. Additionally, a prosecutor might mislead a defense attorney about the amount of evidence they have. Although underhanded, a prosecutor using this ploy is technically in compliance with the professional standard that states “a prosecutor should not knowingly make false statements or representations as to fact or law in the course of plea discussions with defense counsel of the accused.”
Defense attorneys, and the defendants they serve, feel a lot of pressure to plead guilty in lieu of going to trial. Taking the plea is often in the best interests of those defendants who readily admit guilt; they get a lighter sentence in exchange for their cooperation. For others, particularly those languishing in jail awaiting trial or paying attorney fees that increase by the hour, taking a plea is more about getting it over with than an admission of guilt. By pleading guilty defendants can reduce the uncertainty and time associated with a trial and get on with their lives.
Plea bargains reduce the costs and time associated with trials, and they reduce the workloads of overburdened prosecutors and defense attorneys. And, in some cases, they produce fair case outcomes; that is, the defendant’s admission of guilt matches the facts of the case and the sanction fits the crime. But can a process that sidesteps the cornerstone of our adversarial legal system (i.e., the jury trial) deliver justice?
Other questions to consider:
- What are your views on plea bargaining?
- Whose interests are supported by plea bargaining?
- Does the pressure to plea undermine the possibility of a fair outcome?
This is a two-part series by Dr. Betsy Matthews Eastern Kentucky University Associate Professor and EKU Online Coordinator Dr. Betsy Matthews. Read Part 2: Are Jury Trials Becoming Obsolete?