A plea bargain is an agreement that occurs between a prosecutor and a defendant. It is a way to have a defendant plead either no contest or guilty to charges that are brought against them without the cost of a trial. Prosecutors will usually agree to reduce charges, recommend lower sentence lengths, or make some other compromise in exchange for the plea.
The primary advantage of plea bargaining is that it speeds up the processes of the justice system. A criminal trial will take several days in many circumstances. Some can take weeks. The OJ Simpson trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman was televised for 135 days. A plea bargain makes it possible to skip this and go straight to a judge to discuss sentencing.
The primary disadvantage of plea bargaining is that it can still put innocent people in jail. To counter this issue, California voters passed Proposition 8 in 1982 to limit when plea bargaining could occur so that people who were innocent didn’t feel like they needed to gamble with going to trial.
Here are some additional advantages and disadvantages of plea bargaining to take a look at today.
List of the Advantages of Plea Bargaining
1. It removes uncertainty from the legal process.
Defendants who take a plea bargain eliminate the uncertainty that a trial may bring. It is also a way to take away the maximum sentence that could be imposed if they were found guilty by a judge or a jury. In the United States, nearly 500,000 people are held in prison with charges, but are awaiting trial, which means they do not have a conviction. Plea bargaining speeds up this process.
2. It creates certainty for a conviction.
Prosecutors are also gambling when they take a defendant to trial. There is always a chance that the jury will find the defendant not guilty. By agreeing to a plea bargain, it creates a certainty for a conviction. It gets that person off the street or assigns a penalty that can still bring a measure of justice. That allows prosecutors to pursue other cases because they have more time.
3. It can be an effective negotiating tool.
One way to secure witnesses for a large case is to offer a plea bargain that includes testifying against another person. This process allows prosecutors to put everyone involved in a serious case into prison and allows them to pursue the maximum sentence against the person or people they feel are most responsible for a crime when it occurs.
4. It provides more resources for the community.
If a case is taken to trial, every police officer involved in the investigation that led to charges may be asked to testify during the proceeding. Law enforcement officers from other agencies may be called upon. Psychologists may be asked to perform evaluations over a person’s competency. In the United States, the NCJRS reports that the cost of prosecuting and defending a drug offender in the criminal justice system may be over $70,000 per incident. If there are just 10 cases like this, more than $700,000 in taxpayer funds will be spent. A plea bargain could reduce this cost to $4,200 per case.
5. It reduces population levels in local jails.
Many who are awaiting trial are kept in jails at the local level. These jails are usually run by city or county officials and provide little in the way of rehabilitation, education, or therapy. They are holding centers with a bed, meals, and not much else. With a plea bargain moving cases through the criminal justice system faster, it becomes easier to give people the resources they need if they wish to make changes in their lives.
List of the Disadvantages of Plea Bargaining
1. It removes the right to have a trial by jury.
In the United States, every person has a Constitutional right to have a trial by jury. Offering a plea bargain to avoid this trial may seem like a coercive attempt to waive those rights. Pressuring a defendant into accepting a plea deal could be deemed illegal. A defendant must always have the right to take their case to trial for a plea bargain to be an effective tool.
2. It may lead to poor investigatory procedures.
Since 90% of cases in many jurisdictions go to a plea bargain instead of a trial, there is an argument made that this concept leads to lackluster investigation practices. Attorneys and law enforcement officials may not spend time to prepare a case because they have an expectation that it will plead out. Instead of trying to secure justice, the goal is to make a deal, and it could be argued that expecting a deal really isn’t justice.
3. It still creates a criminal record for the innocent.
An innocent person may agree to a plea bargain to cut their losses. That agreement means they will have a criminal record. They may be asked to serve time in prison. There may be fines or restitution to pay. Even if a plea bargain isn’t accepted, there may be legal expenses to pay that may be greater than the cost of what a bargain offers, which leads to an acceptance of a deal.
4. Judges are not required to follow a plea bargain agreement.
The prosecutor and defendant may agree to a plea bargain, but a judge can void that agreement. A judge is not usually required to follow a plea bargain. They can impose longer sentences or decide that no sentence should be imposed. A judge can also require a case to go to trial if they feel like a plea bargain is being offered in bad faith.
5. Plea bargains eliminate the chance of an appeal.
If a case goes to trial and a defendant loses, there may be several grounds upon which an appeal may be filed. Because a plea bargain requires a defendant to plead guilty to the charges, even though they are reduced, it eliminates the ability to file an appeal in almost any circumstance.
6. It provides soft justice for the guilty.
In many circumstances, a plea bargain provides a lighter sentence for someone, even if they may be guilty. It can be treated as an escape route for a prosecutor. Some may argue that a guilty plea and a guaranteed sentence is not the same as being found guilty and having an accurate sentence imposed.
The advantages and disadvantages of plea bargaining may get criminals off the streets, but it could also put innocent people into prison. It opens up a court schedule, but changes the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.
What are your thoughts about the use of plea bargaining in the criminal justice system?