How plea bargains undermine the criminal justice system

On Behalf of | Mar 20, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

In Florida, a defendant engages in plea bargaining when they agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive more lenient sentencing to avoid going to trial. Not all these defendants have committed the crime for which they are charged but feel they must take a plea deal for specific reasons, even if innocent.

The trial penalty

Many criminal defendants live in fear of the “trial penalty,” which means if an individual goes to court, they could receive a court sentence three times what they might receive in a plea bargain.

According to a report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 30 years ago, 20% of criminal defendants had a court trial. The statistics 30 years later show that only 3% of defendants choose a court trial.

Offers of lighter sentencing

In exchange for pleading guilty, a prosecutor will offer a criminal defendant a sentence much lighter than the defendant could receive by going to court. The prosecutor may want a guilty plea because they feel their evidence might not withstand scrutiny in court or want assurance the defendant will receive a conviction so the prosecutor can go on to their next client.

Prosecutors want to avoid losing cases and can win convictions by having their client plead guilty, even if innocent and avoid court altogether. Additionally, some defendants find the stress very difficult and just want the ordeal finished, so they plead guilty, not realizing a criminal conviction’s negative, life-changing nature, especially if they are innocent.

ABA task force

An ABA Plea Bargain Task Force that includes judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and academics is studying the dramatically increased rate of plea bargaining and lack of trials. The task force collects and analyzes data on plea bargains and has found that they contribute to racial inequity, among other issues. For example, Black defendants typically receive more charges in gun and drug cases, incentivizing them to take a guilty plea bargain rather than take their chances in court.

The task force is working to overhaul the criminal justice system. Their recommendations include giving defendants access to discovery information so they can make a more informed decision regarding their plea. They also recommend eliminating pretrial detention or bail requirements when law enforcement uses these tactics to coerce a defendant to plead guilty.

Knowing how the justice system works and why prosecutors may push for a plea deal can help defendants better advocate for themselves.