Plea Bargaining in America: An Overview & Conversation [POLICYbrief]
Articles,  Blog

Plea Bargaining in America: An Overview & Conversation [POLICYbrief]


Plea bargaining is the process by which a
criminal defendant charged with a crime, or multiple crimes, agrees to waive his or her
constitutional right to a jury trial. A criminal defendant is given an opportunity
to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the prosecutor not bringing the higher
charge. So a person who is charged perhaps with murder
might plead down to a manslaughter charge instead. In exchange for that, the prosecutor chooses
not to hold a full trial. The public has this image of jury trials as
making up the bulk of our criminal adjudications based on what they see on TV and in movies,
and that is a vanishingly small part of our criminal justice system. This is a relatively recent process. Uh, this was absolutely unknown at the time
of the founding. The Constitution makes no mention of plea
bargaining whatsoever. The presumption, both historically and in
the text of our Constitution, is that all criminal trials will be by juries. In the early period of American history, the
right to a jury trial was not really considered as belonging to the criminal defendant. Essentially, it was a right that the public
enjoyed, not the defendant, and as a result, criminal defendants were held to be not allowed
to waive their right to a jury trial. That began to change in about the 1870s. It primarily arose because the criminal justice
system simply was unable to process all of the criminal charges that the government was
bringing through the relatively more extensive, time-consuming process of the jury trial. Today, plea bargaining rather than the jury
trial makes up the bulk of our criminal justice system. Ninety-seven percent of all federal convictions
today are obtained through plea bargaining, not through jury trials. The principle behind plea bargaining then
is that the right to a trial belongs to the criminal defendant, just like a piece of property
does, and that, in essence, the defendant can sell the jury trial right to the prosecutor
in exchange for a lower charge. I think where we are today is that this really
can’t be called a voluntary process because you have, uh, criminal defendants who are
being threatened with 20, 30, 40 years in prison. Uh, who would possibly risk that when you
could walk away with two years in prison? One of the benefits to the plea bargaining
system to the criminal defendant is that it allows the criminal defendant to get on with
their life by accepting guilt for a lower offense without having to go through the complicated,
expensive, and time-consuming process, and humiliating process of a trial in front of
a jury. If a criminal defendant is willing to give
up that right in exchange for a lower sentence then society should be okay with that. That also saves taxpayers money and relieves
the system of a burden that might otherwise make it difficult to keep the society safe. It allows prosecutors to concentrate their
efforts on high-level offenders and bring those to trial without having to bring every
case to trial that involves a relatively minor offense. There’s a separate set of issues, in terms
of how you encourage certain defendants to testify against others and, in principle,
you can certainly appreciate, you know, the goal of wanting to encourage certain members
of a criminal organization to give honest testimony against others, but in practice
what you see happening is the prosecutor essentially coercing defendants into giving testimony
that the prosecutors want, whether it’s true or not. On the whole, the Supreme Court has been perfectly
willing to bless plea bargains. And you can understand why it’s, it’s a difficult
concept for the court to address because exactly where the line is between coercive and voluntary
pleas is a difficult question in principle.

14 Comments

  • jakexter1

    I curious what the statistics are of the people that would have plead not guilty at trial but took a plea deal anyways. I think that would lead to some interesting numbers on the coercion of plea bargaining.

  • Haurqermer Eggbert Swartz

    There's also "facts" of the matter, like "overwhelming evidence!" That would make multiple defendants plead guilty!

  • Eddie Brahhh

    The disparity in sentences between peas of guilty and guilt verdicts is largely to blame. But remember this: law enforcement is much more powerful now in terms of money and science than it used to be. Even when you are innocent of say a white collar crime in federal court, you have multiple FBI and IRS agents and prosecutors with only one purpose. Right now, I have a client facing 30 years for fraud in federal court, No priors. I'm convinced he's innocent. He's been offered 5 years and if he takes it his son gets probation. I know they would agree to far less time. He doesn't want to take any offer. He's a great guy and clearly idealistic.

  • Brendan Bush

    This is such an odd channel. I found you guys via an add. Normally when I see informational content featured in YouTube adds it's very politically skewed, think PragerU. When you look at the about page of this channel, it even admits to adhering to a libertarian / conservative ideology, which implies there must be some politically motive behind this effort. However, so far the content has been very non-political. I find this refreshing, and is the main reason I'm continuing to look into and watch your videos, but it also makes me curious. What are the actual aims of this project? If you were really a political channel like PragerU I would expect to be hearing a lot more rhetoric, but so far all I've seen is some informational descriptions of court cases without really even seeing an opinion given to their validity. Don't take this as criticism. It's a good thing. I get tired of seeing all these politically charged videos advertised to me. It's just very unusual to see a channel admit to a political bias in it's description, but then not actually present that bias in it's content.

  • Ann

    I’m here because I’m against plea deals. The first time i heard of it i was so disappointed in the legal system. I used to think court was about finding the truth!
    Since plea bargains exist, they should be fully transparent. But really they shouldn’t even be a thing. Guess i have more ethics than my the justice system! Scary!

  • Matthew savant

    A LOT of people take plea deals because they are either scared or told that it’s in their best interest. I plead guilty in a case because I was absolutely terrified of going into jail, I was facing 3 years. And for the record you only have 15 mins on the morning of your trial to make the choice of plea deal or not. Neither side had any legit evidence so my choice was either fight this at a jury trial and risk 3yrs of my life gone (I would have potentially missed the first 3 years of my daughters life) OR take the plea and get 2 years probation. It took everything in me to physically pick the pen up off the table and sign my name but all I could think of was my wife and newborn baby and taking the risk of being away from them for 3 years. So I swallowed my pride and my anger to fight this bullshit case and I signed the fucking paper. I decided to take the only road that would absolutely ensure that I would be sleeping in my own bed that night and knowing that I’d be able to raise my child with my wife. I have to life with a felony and that’s going to cause some issues in my life but that was the choice that was given to me and I choose the sure shot. Not everyone who takes any kind of plea deal is guilty.

  • Mark Beaudry

    The police and prosecutors routinely stack charges against defendants to facilitate the bargaining mechanism. Like used car salesman they anticipate defenses and tactically deploy their advantage to minimize any exculpatory conflicts which would subject the police to criminal charges. I think it would be interesting to see the D.O.J. create situations where the defendants were unquestionably innocent and see how many were arrested.

  • Charles Gault

    The problem with plea bargain is number one, innocent people are sometimes coerced into pleading guilty to something they didn't do, number two, if the defendant is guilty of the alleged crime then he or she will get away with a lesser punishment then what they might actually deserve. It's not always fair to any of the parties involved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *