The Problem With Plea Bargains 

From the state’s point of view, the main benefit of the plea bargain is that it saves time See full size imageand money. It’s a good thing for someone who is guilty, someone who has factually done that which he or she is charged with doing, who is confronted with overwhelming evidence, and where the state is inclined to make some kind of offer because they would not want to put the victim, or families of the victim, or put the state, to the cost of proving the case at trial.

For every criminal conviction that comes after a trial, 19 other cases are settled by plea bargain. This system can easily be abused by over zealous prosecutors and low paid public defenders.  It can extract guilty pleas from absolutely innocent people who plead guilty to charges they did not commit because they can’t afford the risk of going to trial. Especially when their own lawyer is telling them that they stand a good chance of going to prison unless they accept the agreement that the prosecution is offering.

So why would an innocent person admit to a crime they didn’t commit? If an individual refuses to take the plea bargain and accept a guilty plea, and is later convicted, they face penalties up to ten times greater than if he were convicted of trial.

About 95 percent of all felony convictions in the United States are the result of plea bargains.

Judge Ralph Adam Fine’s comment on plea bargaining:

During my nine years as a trial judge, I had several defendants who wanted to plead guilty even though when I then asked them to tell me what they did, responded with stories of innocence. When I asked them why they were trying to plead guilty, they all told me that they had been threatened with harsher penalties if they insisted on going to trial. In rejecting their pleas, I told them that we had enough guilty persons to convict, and that we did not need to dip into the pool of the innocent.

In each of the instances, we went to trial and the defendants were acquitted.

Judge Fine proves that plea bargaining is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in an excellent article he wrote for the Federalist Society; the article is located here (large .pdf).

Prosecutors are under significant pressure to negotiate plea agreements. a criminal trial costs approximately $10,000 per day to prosecute, prosecutors have very heavy case loads, the jails are crowded and the criminal court calendars are full. In addition, various pressures lead defense attorneys to plea bargain most cases.

Going to a jury trial is a roll of dice—even with the best attorneys and the most exonerating evidence in the world, you just never know what kind of decision a jury of 12 people will come to with your case!

When plea bargaining is available, prosecutors can extract a guilty plea in nearly every case, including very weak cases, simply by adjusting the plea concession to the defendant’s chances of acquittal at trial. When almost every case results in a plea of guilty, regardless of the strength of the evidence, prosecutors have much less interest in screening away weak cases. Since some cases are weak because the defendant is innocent, however, more innocent defendants are charged and as a result more are convicted.

More Reading On This Topic:

In the prosecutor’s view, there is no such thing as an innocent suspect or defendant.

Prosecutors are intimidating, and threatening to those who are being prosecuted for something they did not even do.

For every false conviction due to plea bargaining, there exists a criminal on the streets whom the police no longer care about.


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