Plea bargains are extraordinarily common in the American legal system, accounting for roughly 90% of all criminal cases. Many countries, however, do not allow plea bargains, considering them unethical and immoral. Below is a discussion about what plea bargains are, why we use them and different types of plea bargains, as well as what happens if both parties don't live up to the terms of a plea bargain.
What Are Plea Bargains?
Plea bargains are an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and the defendant that usually involves the defendant pleading guilty in order to receive a lesser offense or sentence. Plea bargains are often referred to as really just establishing a "mutual acknowledgment" of the case's strengths and weaknesses, and don't necessarily reflect a traditional sense of "justice". In theory, courts are happy to have the respective parties work out a solution by themselves, but it begs the question of who is best served by allowing plea bargains.
Why are Plea Bargains Used? Are They a Good Idea?
The primary justifications for plea bargains are that:Courts are overcrowded; if you didn't allow plea bargains, courts would be overwhelmed and forced to shut down.Prosecutors' caseloads are also overloaded; fewer trials means that the prosecutor can more effectively prosecute the most serious cases.Defendants save time and money by not having to defend themselves at trial.
These primary justifications all provide benefits to the respective players: the court, the prosecutor and the defendant, but don't inherently offer any benefit to the populace at large or take any steps towards a truly just outcome. For this - and other moral, ethical and constitutional reasons - many in the legal field have openly challenged the plea bargaining system.
In a notable example, the Attorney General of Alaska outright banned plea bargaining in 1975, and other states and localities have as well. In one study about areas where plea bargaining was prohibited, the author concluded that not being able to rely on plea bargaining reinforced responsibility in every level of the judicial process judges, lawyers, prosecutors and police and did not result in the court system being overwhelmed.
Finally, work in other fields, such as "Prisoner's dilemma" studies have demonstrated that suspects have every incentive to agree to plea bargains that don't reflect their guilt or innocence, either out of fear or to push the blunt of the blame to someone else. Regardless of these concerns, however, plea bargains continue to be a major component of the American legal system.
What Types of Plea Bargains Are There?
There are generally three types of plea bargains recognized:Charge Bargaining: the most common form of plea bargaining, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge provided that greater charges will be dismissed. A typical example would be to plead to manslaughter rather than murder.Sentence Bargaining: far less common and more tightly controlled that charge bargaining, sentence bargaining is when a defendant agrees to plead guilty to the stated charge in return for a lighter sentence. Typically this must be reviewed by a judge, and many jurisdictions simply don't allow it.Fact Bargaining: this is the least common form of plea bargaining, and it occurs when a defendant agrees to stipulate to certain facts in order to prevent other facts from being introduced into evidence. Many courts don't allow it, and in general, most attorneys do not favor using fact bargains.
What Happens if I or the Prosecutor Break a Plea Bargain?
A plea bargain is a contract between the defendant and the prosecutor. If either side fails to live up to its end of the agreement, the most likely remedy is to go to court to enforce the agreement. In particular, many plea bargains ask a defendant to do something in return for a lesser charge. If a defendant fails to perform his or her end of the bargain, then a prosecutor can revoke the offer.
Plea Bargains and Judicial Economy + The American legal system has used plea bargaining for well over a hundred years, and one of the primary justifications for the use of plea bargaining is the principle of judicial economy. Judicial economy simply means that one goal of the judicial system is to conclude cases in an efficient and speedy manner. Without plea bargaining, it is widely believed that there would be an explosion of cases which in turn would overtax and disrupt the current legal system.
Plea Bargains, Judges and Judicial Economy
The primary benefit of plea bargains to a judge is that plea bargains reduce their already crowded calendar of court cases. It takes months, if not years, to get a trial date, so judges are always eager to have parties settle the matter between themselves and keep the dispute out of the court room.
Many judges also see plea bargains as advantageous because they represent an agreement or bargain between the parties, which makes compliance and adherence to the agreement more likely. This, in turn, reduces potential disputes the parties will have in the future and will hopefully prevent parties from having to come back to court.
Finally, most judges are keenly aware that many state's prisons are also overburdened. Many judges see plea bargains as an effective way to deal with less heinous criminals and reserve limited prison space for serious threats to the community.
Plea Bargains, Prosecutors and Judicial Economy
Prosecutors have their own calendars to worry about, and for the same reason as judges, prefer to keep the calendar as free as possible. Especially in offices where funding and resources are a major issue, prosecutors are open to negotiating a plea agreement rather than spend the time, money and resources on a full trial.
Similarly, many prosecutors like plea bargains because they give the prosecutor flexibility and they allow prosecutors to "screen out smaller criminal offenses. By screening out lesser offenses, a prosecutor can bring the full power of their office to bear on serious criminal offenses. For instance, many prosecutors would rather focus their time on a high-profile murder case than a minor drug possession case, both for political and practical reasons.
As any good attorney knows, if it matters to the judge, it had better matter to you. Prosecutors know that judges want to keep trials moving and not fill up the court calendar, and prosecutors want to stay in good favor with the judge. Accordingly, prosecutors always want to appear ready to solve the dispute outside of the court room in order to avoid the wrath of an overworked judge.
Plea bargains also result in convictions, and prosecutors are measured by their conviction rate. Most prosecutors would rather spend a week negotiating a plea for a lesser conviction than spend a year to achieve a greater conviction. They can still tout their conviction rate, and claim to be "tough on crime", while doing it in a much more efficient manner.
Finally, any experienced prosecutor knows how much of a gamble a trial really is. Plea agreements, however, are a sure thing. Even if the case seems reasonably air-tight, most prosecutors would rather have a certain conviction over an uncertain trial. All it can take is one juror to wreak havoc on months or years of effort. Accordingly, even if a prosecutor is confident, there is a good chance that he or she would rather settle the case by a plea agreement than roll the dice in the courtroom.
Defense Plea Bargains + As many as 90% of all criminal cases are settled by plea bargain. Why are plea bargains so popular with both prosecutors and defense attorneys? For prosecutors, it means not having to prosecute the case which saves time and resources. For defense attorneys, it means potentially saving their client from more serious charges and jail time. Finally, for defendants, it often means receiving a reduced sentence and resolving the matter quickly.
The Benefits of Defense Plea Bargains
From the defense standpoint, the benefits of plea bargaining are numerous. Here are some of the most commonly cited justifications for agreeing to a plea bargain.
Trade risk for certainty: one of the primary reasons that defendants agree to plea bargains is simple anxiety. If a case goes to trial, they might get off - but they also might get the maximum sentence. Most people can't stand living in a state of constant anxiety and prefer certainty, so they sign plea agreements.
Avoid jail time: a big reason for agreeing to a plea bargain is to avoid jail time. Not having to go to jail and live with the stigma associated with it, and not being separated from family and friends is a huge incentive to sign a plea agreement.
Reduction in charges: the most common form of plea bargain, a reduction in the severity of the charge, is a great benefit to a defendant. A lesser charge looks better on a permanent record, won't have as serious an impact on future convictions (especially in "three strikes" states) and may not exclude the defendant from a variety of things that those convicted of more serious charges are prohibited from doing (eg, voting).
Reduction in sentencing: sometimes the prosecutor does not lower the charge, but rather lessens the sentence sought to something below the maximum allowed sentence for a crime. While not nearly as advantageous as a reduction in the charge, the difference in sentencing can be a matter of years and crucially important to a defendant.
Resolve the issue quickly: probably the most practical reason plea bargains are sought is simply to resolve the issue as quickly as possible and move on. It may not be the most "just" outcome, but many defendants simply want to move on with their life.
Avoid stigmatizing sentences: several crimes have a severe social stigma attached to them, and plea bargains often recognize this by dropping the most stigmatizing offense (such as rape) in favor of a less stigmatizing offense (like assault).
Avoid publicity: one of the biggest tools prosecutors or defendants can use is the media. As a result, many defendants simply want to keep the matter quiet, without dragging the case out in front of the public.
Avoid hassles: finally, there are a multitude of hassles that come with going to trial. The time, expense and exposure can be exceptionally draining on a defendant, and many defendants will seek a plea bargain just to avoid the circus that may accompany a trial.
Not everyone agrees that plea bargains are really a good deal for defendants, especially where many of the considerations seem to favor time, expense and convenience over justice. Finally, many defendants agree to plea bargains simply out of fear or ignorance in which case no one is well served - the system or the defendant.
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