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.”
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?
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).