Friday, June 09, 2006


"Give that a jury trial is a constitutional right, it seems perverse to punish someone for exercising that constitutional right"

One of the more frustrating things that I see in criminal justice is the system of "plea bargains" in which someone quite guilty is given a lighter sentance (or even is simply relocated as a witness and hidden somewhere) in exchange for either admitting their guilt and skipping the court case, or for offering useful information that leads to the conviction of other, more dangerous criminals. This has in the past been used to arrest and convict gang bosses, for instance - see the movie Goodfellas, which is based on actual events.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette examined this system last month:

Prosecutors argue that guilty pleas are essential, and without them the system would be crippled by thousands of cases backlogged for trial. Further, they think that defendants who take responsibility for their crimes deserve to benefit.

Defense attorneys and some academics, though, argue that the system is so skewed that most clients are forced to accept pleas, knowing that if they take their chances at trial and lose, they will face sentences that are at least 25 percent higher.


In 1987, the federal court system implemented mandatory sentencing guidelines to try to eliminate discretionary sentencing and to ensure that like crimes were punished similarly.

A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision made those guidelines advisory only, but one element that remained the same was the provision that allows a sentence reduction for "acceptance of responsibility," or pleading guilty.

The article ends with this statistic:

Nationally, for fiscal year 2004, 95.5 percent of the 51,666 convictions were reached through guilty pleas. That means that only 2,316 U.S. District Court cases across the country went to trial.
At Overlawyered, this article was brought up, and commenters responded - with analysis after their thoughts:

So what do these folks think? That every case should go to trial?

Believe me, I worked as a prosecutor. If you saved me the time and expense of trying a case for a crime that you knew you were guilty of, you'd get a better deal. Why should someone who admits their guilt face the same penalty as someone who wastes scarce taxpayer dollars?

Plea bargaining is a good thing, just like civil settlements are a good thing.
-by E-Bell

The person who wrote the article has absolutely no understanding of what a plea deal is. Heck, they seem to even lack any understanding of what a "deal" is!

They are criticizing that defendants who take the plea deals get less time, well friggin duh!!!! For a plea deal to be legal there has to be some sort of an incentive of the defendant to make his plea. If there is no benefit to the defendant the plea would be ruled as illusory and set aside.

People get deals all the time. Some people willingly pay full price when they buy houses and cars. While others bargain and get deals. Guess what, those who bargain and take the deals end up paying less! God, what nonsense this is!
-by Ima Fish

Why should someone who admits their guilt face the same penalty as someone who wastes scarce taxpayer dollars?
That's not the issue. The issue is whether innocent people are pleading guilty rather than going to trial, since the "trial tax" makes it overly risky for even innocent criminal defendants. (On a more theoretical note: Give that a jury trial is a constitutional right, it seems perverse to punish someone for exercising that constitutional right.)

Deal with this one situation (among many):

Tulia, Texas. Specifically, a big sting operation... fabricated by the undercover cop.

That it was fabricated is now not in question. Everyone awaiting trial has had their charges dismissed, and those found guilty have been exonerated.

But those who PLED guilty (under GREAT pressure, as some were too poor to post bail) are STILL IN JAIL.

That is a travesty.

I completely understand the issue of tax-payer dollars; I also understand that those who are the most obviously guilty, those for whom we should be most comfortable with long sentences, are the MOST LIKELY to plead guilty and get a lesser sentence, while those whose guilt we fel least comfortabl about, about whom we are most likely to make a mistake (and mistakes DO happen) are the ones who serve the longer sentences.

Wasting resources is a serious issue, certainly, but you didn't make any case at all that is was MORE serious than justice.

Let me add that I have no magic solution to this problem. It is a difficult problem, with no easy solution. The current "solution" is simply not a very good one - but it's remotely possible that it is the best we can come up with.
-by Deoxy

"On a more theoretical note: Give that a jury trial is a constitutional right, it seems perverse to punish someone for exercising that constitutional right."

The person that goes to trial on the original charges and is convicted on those original charges is not be punished.

Here is how it works. A defendant does some act or acts. Those acts correspond with the elements of a particular crime. A jury takes the acts committed and compares them with the elements of the crime to see if that particular crime is committed.

And here's my point: If a defendant is found to have committed a crime at trial and he's sentenced for committing that crime under the guidelines, where is the alleged punishment for not taking the deal?

I was involved with a case where the defendant stabbed someone to death. The prosecutor offered her a deal where she'd plea to second degree murder, thus giving her a chance for parole. She decided to go to trial and the jury found her guilty of first degree murder. Second degree murder was an option for the jury to consider, lesser included crimes are always included for the jury as an option, but the jury determined that because the defendant stabbed the victim twice in the heart, it showed an intent and deliberation to murder. Of course she was sentenced under the guidelines to life in prison without parole.

In that situation, where was she "punished" for not taking the deal? She did commit first degree murder and was sentenced to first degree murder. Did she screw up by not taking the deal? Sure. Will she be kicking herself the rest of her life for not taking the deal? Yep! But was any additional punishment applied to her situation for not taking the deal? Not at all. She was sentenced according to her conviction and not a bit more.
-by Ima Fish

Yay for that.

Now deal with the situation I posted.

If you have more time, consider this situation: you are innocent. You are charged with a crime, and the circumstantial evidenc against is significant. Your lawyer adviss you that you've got about an 80% chance of being found innocnt (best guess).

The prosecutor offers you a deal: plead guilty to a certain set of charges, get 3 months probation. Otherwise, at trial, the charges he will bring (which you aren't currently being charged with - he'll add them, just because he can) have a minimum penalty of 10 years in prison, up to 25 years.

Now, 80% is pretty good odds... but do you want to be 10-25 years on 80%? How about 90%?

That is what people are being asked to choose between. Innocent people plead guilty because of choices like that. THAT is why the ssystem is BROKEN. (See the Tulia example, above, for more.)

If you can't see that, you need to be charged with a serious crime. It would open your eyes.

OK, one more point: if you aren't charging someone with a certain crime now, yet you will if they don't plead guilty, and your rationalization to yourself is that they really are guilty of it and therefore it's a legitimate charge, WHY AREN'T YOU ALREADY CHARGING THEM WITH IT?!? It's levrage, plain and simple, to up the risk of going to trial, to get them to plead guilty, whether they are or not.
-by Deoxy

There is one more possibility for righting the wrong (of an innocent person accepting a plea instead of facing false evidence and being wrongly convicted). It doesn't happen very often, but the governor of the state (or POTUS, for federal crimes) can pardon the wrongly convicted person. I don't know if that's the same thing, because the part I don't know is whether the act of a pardon also clears the pardoned person's record of the crime.
-by MF

Although there's no way of knowing, I suspect the divide in this discussion is along defense and prosecuting attorney lines.

The entire point of offering someone a deal is that it will be reduced and less penalizing than the likely result of a trial - as Deoxy pointed out, a prosecutor can easily push for the maximum sentance and offer a much lighter one to make the deal more attractive. What's missing here is an understanding of justice, or at least a setting aside of it in the name of expediency.

Punishment for a crime is just - this is what happens when you break society's laws and violate the social contract. But reducing this punishment because it's cheaper or easier for the DA is not justice. Either the crime is worthy a given punishment or it is not. When a deal is offered, it is either presenting too much punishment for the crime, or too little, depending on which you consider the proper amount: the results of a trial or the plea bargain.

Commenter E-Bell unknowingly admitted a flaw I see in lawyers at times, the loss of a vision of justice and truth and a surrender to the mechanics of the system:
"The system doesn't deal with truth - it deals with evidence and proof."
While this is technically true about the system, the people involved and the purpose of the system is a search for justice which can only be found with truth. There's no point in having evidence and proof if it is not toward a specific goal which should always be justice and truth.

And finally, as I quoted above from Deoxy, penalizing someone for exercising their constitutional right has to be some kind of violation of civil rights.
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