Plea Bargaining: Coercion or Choice?

WSainvil — January 23, 2013 @ 3:09 PM — Comments (7)

When the founding fathers included the sixth amendment in the Bill of Rights, I am sure they never imagined that in this day and age almost 90 percent of defendants in criminal cases would relinquish their constitutional rights and plead guilty. According to the Federal Justice Statistics, less than 5 percent of defendants in criminal cases actually exercised their right to a speedy, public trial with an impartial jury in 2009.

What are plea bargains?
Plea bargains are non-trial procedures where defendants are offered a minimized punishment or charge than they would receive if they proceeded to trial.

“During an arraignment the defendant is faced with the maximum charge or punishment that the defendant will be held to if he or she goes to trial. The prosecutor will present the defendant with an opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to the original charge with less than the maximum sentence” – Bureau of Justice Assistance

Why are plea bargains offered?
There are many arguments that favor plea bargains; however the argument of cost and time is most prominent and significant. Those in favor conclude the practice saves courts time and money.

Some trials are known to last several months at great cost to the courts and the defendant. The McMartin Preschool trial is known as the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S  history. It had a life span of three years and cost the government alone roughly $15 million.

Harvard law professor William Stuntz has noted that “due to docket pressure, prosecutors lack the time to pursue even some winnable cases,” and that “prosecutors in most jurisdictions have more cases than they have time to handle them.”

http://www.toonpool.com/user/997/files/constitution_guarantees_speedy_t_953545.jpg

Opposing Views and The Reality of Plea Bargains and Innocence
Those skeptical of or against plea bargains state it’s a tool used to undermine the sixth amendment and gives too much power to prosecutors. During sentencing, judges are given strict guidelines to follow; however, prosecutors are allowed much more freedom. It has been noted that prosecutors have been found to use threats to pressure defendants into a plea bargains, especially when the evidence is feeble.

Others argue the use of plea bargains in turn punishes defendants who exercise their constitutional right and proceed to a trial. For example, in 1963, Henry Alford was indicted on first degree murder charges. Although he plead guilty to the crime, he was very vocal about his innocence. The plea deal offered him a life sentence in place of capital punishment. Alford stated on many occasions that he was coerced into a confession and plead guilty for the fear of a harsher sentence.

While Alford’s innocence is important, his case raised more significant questions. Does fear constitute coercion and do plea bargains really offer a choice for some defendants? On the other side of the spectrum there are those who argue no one is forced into taking a plea bargain, and it’s a choice the defendant must make.

However, with the options given to defendants, is it really a choice?

illusion-of-free-choice

The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma
A college student in Florida was accused of cheating on a logic test being administered as part of a psychological study. She was given two choices. If she confessed to cheating and saved the university time and money of going to trial in front of the Academic Review Board, she would lose her right to compensation for participating in the study. However, if she proceeded to trial and was found guilty, she would lose the compensation, her faculty adviser would be informed and she would be forced to enroll in an ethics course. Although the loss of compensation was a great punishment, it was far better than having to take a time consuming ethics course. Though she was completely innocent, with the options given to her, the student chose to admit to cheating.

What the student didn’t know was she was actually part of a psychological study that attempted to recreate why and how an innocent person might plead guilty. The result’s of The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem revealed 56 percent of the innocent participants admitted to cheating. Although the punishment and the situations aren’t precise to criminal cases, the study puts into perspective how a persons feels while weighing their options. The study found what most may have predicted, guilty persons are more likely to plead guilty than innocent persons. However, the fact that more than half of the innocent participants admitted guilt is a significant find.

Most innocent students chose to avoid the trial and the consequences that may come of it. For 56 percent of the innocent persons, it was more beneficial to admit to cheating, than being found guilty at trial, even though they didn’t cheat.

This is parallel to the criminal cases. Defendants are “rewarded” for accepting a plea bargains, yet if found guilty are punished for going to trial. One must ask would the founding fathers – who included the Bill of Rights in the constitution as a protective measure against the government – consider this justice, a system that gives criminals the easy way out, and puts innocent people in a tricky predicament.

Share Your Thoughts
Coercion or Choice? Which side are you on?


Special Thanks to Lucian E. Dervan and Vanessa Edkins for allowing us to share their study The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem.

Lucian E. Dervan and Vanessa A. Edkins, The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem, 103 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology – (forthcoming 2013).

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Comments and Pings on “Plea Bargaining: Coercion or Choice?”

  1. I believe its coercion! My son was accused of killing someone even though witnesses said it wasn’t him the prosecutor said if we take the plea he will only do 5 years, but because he said he didn’t do it we went to trial and he got the maximum sentence even though he never had a criminal record. The prosecutor told me and my wife that he knew he didn’t do it, but someone had to account for the body and since our son didn’t want to tell on the person that did it he has to carry the weight. This really showed is that the justice system is a game that people play without having to answer for their actions. We had all the proof to show our sons innocence but since we are not part of the game we got chastised by the people in this so called justice system.

     Fernando Gotay Sr. — January 25, 2013 @ 1:02 pm
  2. Yes i know all to well how the system works.35 years ago in the state on Virginia i plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter when i know it was self defense as the person i shot had fired his weapon and was trying to kill my friend a myself.He shot into a occupied vehicle. my lawyer Max Jenkins explained to me that the person i wiil call him Delmer was going to shoot my friend and not me and i had no right to shoot him and if i went to trial i would get 5 to 15 years in prison.I plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and receive 3 years probation.Lost all my rights .Then found out the commonwealth Attorney and my Attorney were good friends and had sold me out because of the threats my lawyer had told me.I am 100% Disabled Serviced connected Vietnam combat vet and am being treated like a criminal.To restore my rights i need to jump through hoops for the Governor.Not going to happen.I am 69 years old now and it is to late for me to clear my name.By the way they disposed my probation after 1 year .GUILT I suppose on there part.They have made my life hard live at times

     Larry O McCallister — February 1, 2013 @ 11:15 am
  3. The justice system is a complete and utter joke as far as I am concerned. They set the trap for me a few weeks ago. The “STATE” decided to prosecute (persecute) me even though they knew I was innocent. Their “coercive” plea bargain offer: 9 months deferred sentencing with promise of accepting my motion to withdraw my guilty plea and discontinue pursuing criminal charges against me (nolle prosequi). This bargain is contingent upon my reporting weekly to a Community Supervision Officer, taking weekly Drug Tests, submitting to a Mental Evaluation and Mental Counseling (if deemed necessary), attending Anger Management Classes (if deemed necessary after evaluation) and maintaining “Meaningful employment/vocational schooling”.

    My perception of the Justice System and Plea bargaining is based upon past observations and more specifically to my present situation:

    1. If you are willing not to prosecute, obviously the person is not guilty of the crime which you are willing to overlook, so why persecute and cause havoc in the persons life.

    2. Everyone involved in the “official” procedural conduct obviously is in cahoots with each other and operate with deception and downright lies.

    3. Normally the plea bargains are structured in such a way that the accused is set up to fail and the system protects itself by coercing the individual to place on the record that they were not “coerced”. The complete plea bargain system is a system of coercion, i.e.

    My case involved my attorney and I signing a form document, consisting of check marks, a few minutes before the calling of the case. The District Attorney signed the form. Gave the Judge a copy, the Judge then read the agreement requiring me to answer in the affirmative to each point; that no other promises were made, and that I was not coerced or threaten in any manner.

    The DA before submitting the form to the judge deceptively checked, maintain “Meaningful employment/vocational schooling”. I did not agree to that proviso because I have been retired almost 7 years and do not work neither have a desire to return to work or learn a trade. I as the defendant do not have the right to argue in the court, but must speak through my attorney, My attorney and I discussed this when the judge read it. He told if I challenged trial would go forth resulting I my going to jail, “This s a sweet deal”.

    Finding employment is impossible because if I am honest on my application for a job my answer to “Why do you want to work for me?” will be, “I have been ordered to find employment by the court”. “Do you have a criminal record?” Yes, I have a pending sentencing date to a crime that I pleaded guilty.

    I am 62 years old and have been retired for 7 years, now have open criminal case to which I pleaded guilty. In essence, the system set me up to fail and jail me.So you see the system and the Plea Bargain aspect of it is nothing more than a ruse….

    As the other commenter stated,

    “the commonwealth Attorney and my Attorney were good friends and had sold me out because of the threats my lawyer had told me”…

    “the justice system is a game that people play without having to answer for their actions. …. had… proof to show… innocence but since we are not part of the game we got chastised by the people in this so called justice system”

     Kelvin Andrews — July 8, 2013 @ 7:46 am
  4. This is in response to Mr Fernando Gotay if you are going to write your opinion all over the internet at least tell the truth. It was your sons guy that was identified as the gun that shot and killed that young man in his own house. Your son and son in law went to that young mans house to buy drugs. If you tell the truth and stop making it to be the systems fault that your son is in jail that would be the best thing you ever done for your son,. Maybe the problem isn’t the system maybe its your parenting, Instead of always putting blame on others maybe you should have correcting your sons bad habits and maybe he wouldn’t be doing a long time in jail today. And for all that people that are feeding into Mr Gotays bullshit account of his son being jailed you can all go to the Pocono newspaper and bring up the whole case or just goggle Fernando Gotay JR and you will see everything for yourself and see Mr. Gotay has a problem facing reality. from someone that’s been following this case from the day of arrest.

  5. my son had to plea guilty cause he had a child to support and stay working so he got probation (10yrs)so he worked to pay his fines and go to his classes and then they kicked him out and than let him back in then they said he provoked his proba tion so they put him in jail about 6mos and his lawyer wouldn’t fight for him time went by and at the trial he was found guilty so he tried to fire the lawyer and it didn’t work . so now hes been in prison for two yrs still says he is not guilty and they don’t like that (you know) he is at price daniels unit in Snyder texasand im his mother trying to do what I can about all this oor is it to late please help despite mother fighting for her innocent son?

     deborah goodwin — June 3, 2014 @ 2:43 pm
  6. DUI , was there to stop drinking . On the day I finished my 30 day program I was told by the staff that I was being accused of molesting my then 9 or ten year old son . This was a commplete fabrication . My X had told my son to tell his school , the school reported this to the police , When I was told of this I called the the police and asked them to please come to the hospital where I had been for the last month and explain what was going on . Hospital staff told me not to talk to the police and I said why not I haven’t don anything , When the investigating officer showed up , I asked what is all this about ? I was told that there was an incident on one occasion where I had inappropriately touched my sons private parts my reply was I don’t recall that that ever happend . Severial months go by and I am arrested for molesting my son The police report that was put together said that I was a drunk and could not remember anything . This is true , I have no memory of such an ivent because it did not happen . So then its plea bargain time . The puplic defender tells me that this is such a minor thing that if I plead no contest I would most likly get only two days in jail . The other option was go to trial and if covicted I would be sentenced to 8 years in prison . Didn’t know what to do , so I pled no contest and got 40 days in solitary confinement and was relies ed. This all happend prior to Megans law . I am a veteran honorably discharged from the U.S.A.F., with time spent in Vietnam I live in a trailer park in Palo Alto Ca.. The trailer is being sold to developers and I will soon have to move , since Megains Law with all its wisdom is now the law , there is no place for me to move to . I have lived in the same place for the last 18 years and have made frends in this comunity in some way or another I have helped people and been a good neighbor . About two years ago someone put a flyer up in our laundry room about me . My frends and neighbours will no longer speak to me , over time both of my pets have been poisond I’m paranoid as to what will happen next.

     Michael A Helmer — November 6, 2014 @ 12:43 am
  7. My only crime ,and my only lie is ,that I pleaded no contest to something I did not do

     Michael A Helmer — November 6, 2014 @ 12:46 am

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