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Why Plea Bargaining Makes the Justice System Worse

The trend towards plea bargaining and settlement conferences is largely based on saving both the court and the defendant time and money.


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Meredith Kirby

4 months ago | 3 min read
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The pressure to plead guilty interferes with due process

Pleading guilty is the norm in our justice system. Scholars estimate that between 90 and 95 percent of state and federal court cases are resolved through a plea bargain. The overwhelming majority of defendants plead guilty.

The trend towards plea bargaining and settlement conferences is largely based on saving both the court and the defendant time and money.

This swing away from jury trials leads to a worse justice system because it removes much of the potential for justice from the system, rendering the cost-benefit discussion of plea bargaining morally irrelevant.

People who plead guilty aren’t always guilty

Defendants will often plead guilty in order to avoid a costly and lengthy jury trial, whether or not they are actually guilty. Prosecutors will often use threats to coerce defendants into accepting guilty pleas when they feel they have insufficient evidence to prosecute.

Without plea bargains, each case would have a better chance of being tried impartially, resulting in less innocent defendants being coerced into guilty pleas.

Factors like the defendant’s record, the seriousness of the charges, the strength of the evidence, and the detention status of the defendant often increase the defendant’s likelihood of pleading guilty.

Nonlegal factors like race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status also influence the outcomes of these situations.

Defendants who are poor, young, old, non-white, female, facing serious charges, presently incarcerated, or who have a prior record are all more likely to take a plea bargain. This creates a justice system that is unfairly biased against people in certain demographics.

There is a lack of judicial regulation in the plea bargaining process

Plea bargaining usually happens “behind closed doors” without a judge there to determine whether the plea agreement is truly voluntary.

In some cases, there is strong evidence of vindictive tactics taken by prosecutors against defendants who refuse to plead guilty, such as an increase in the severity of the charges pursued against the defendant prior to a “not guilty” plea.

Prosecutors often offer the strongest incentives for defendants to plead guilty in cases where the evidence of their guilt is the weakest. Defendants plead guilty anyway to avoid having charges on their records which could interfere with their future ability to obtain a job, housing, or education.

The coercion and fear involved in our plea bargaining practices call into question their constitutionality, as this may interfere with a citizen’s constitutionally-protected right to a jury trial.

If defendants plead guilty in order to avoid being unfairly punished for daring to exercise their right to a jury trial, their constitutional rights are clearly being violated.

Wrongfully convicted people still plead guilty

Since the advent of DNA testing, many convicted defendants who had previously pled guilty were later found to be innocent based on DNA evidence.

Wrongfully convicted defendants who have won the right to a new trial may also plead guilty, to avoid risking remaining within the brutal system that they have become acquainted with.

This leads to the absurd consequences of demonstrably, factually innocent people pleading guilty because it is the expedient thing to do in order to secure their freedom.

Police and prosecutors avoid responsibility

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors are often reluctant to explore post-conviction claims of innocence.

The guilty plea is often the more attractive option to prosecutors and law enforcement because it negates the ability of wrongfully convicted defendants to later seek compensatory damages in civil court from those who wrongfully convicted them.

This is an abuse of our justice system, which unfairly shelters prosecutors and law enforcement from the responsibility of being held accountable for their mistakes.

Lawyers get less trial experience

Fewer cases going to trial has additional consequences for our justice system, aside from the injustice that it creates for defendants. When a case does go to trial, law firms often bring out their most experienced lawyers to argue the case.

The decline in the number of cases going to trial therefore, unfortunately, leads to less experienced lawyers being less likely to get the trial experience they need to be effective in the courtroom.

This situation is essentially creating a generation of lawyers who are less-competent during trials than they theoretically could be. Fewer trials mean that lawyers have less of a frame of reference to asses the risks of going to trial in future cases.

The status quo also creates more dissatisfied defendants, which decreases the public’s faith in the justice system overall.

The public has good reason to be disillusioned with a justice system that places a higher value on cost-effectiveness and time-efficiency than truth and justice for all those involved in criminal or civil trials.

Bibliography:

Blume, J. H., & Helm, R. K. (2014). The Unexonerated: Factually Innocent Defendants Who Plead Guilty. Cornell Law Review, 100(1). doi:https://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4648&context=clr

Burke, A. S. (2007). Prosecutorial Passion, Cognitive Bias, and Plea Bargaining. Marquette Law Review, 91(1). doi:https://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/mulr/vol91/iss1/9

Devers, L. (2011). Plea Bargaining and Charge Bargaining. Bureau of Justice Assistance. doi:https://bja.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh186/files/media/document/PleaBargainingResearchSummary.pdf

Finkelstein, M. (1975). Statistical Analysis of Guilty Plea Practices in the Federal Courts. Harvard Law Review. doi:https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=31125

Forward, J. (2014, March 19). The Disappearing Jury Trial: Implications for the Justice System and Lawyers. Retrieved May 05, 2020, from https://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/RotundaReport/Pages/Article.aspx?ArticleID=11435

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