What is a Plea Bargain and How Does It Impact the Justice System?


When many people think about how criminal charges are resolved in the U.S. justice system, they envision a jury trial. However, the reality is that the majority of state criminal cases, about 94%, and federal criminal cases, about 97%, are now concluded through plea bargains. This means that most criminal cases in the U.S. never go to trial.

In a plea bargain, a defendant agrees to plead guilty to some or all charges in exchange for concessions from the prosecutor, such as a reduced sentence or lesser charges. Supporters of the plea bargain system highlight the faster resolution of cases and the alleviation of court dockets as positive outcomes of relying on plea bargains.

Nevertheless, like many aspects of the U.S. justice system, the intentions and execution of plea bargains do not always align. Critics argue that plea bargains can lead to coerced guilty pleas and provide cover for corrupt or unlawful behavior on the part of prosecutors.

To understand the debate surrounding plea bargains, let’s delve deeper into their definition.

What are Plea Bargains?

A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and defendant that involves the defendant pleading guilty to some or all charges. Defendants are advised by their counsel, which could be a public defender or private attorney, to accept the terms of a plea bargain if it benefits them.

For both sides to reach an agreement, they must see advantages in the plea bargain. Prosecutors are interested in obtaining a guilty plea and efficiently resolving the case, while defendants are motivated to plead guilty in order to receive a reduced or commuted sentence.

On the surface, this explanation of plea bargains seems reasonable. However, problems arise in the implementation of this seemingly simple mechanism due to uneven power dynamics and the influence of race and class on plea bargain outcomes.

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Pros and Cons of Plea Bargains

Plea bargains have become common in the U.S. justice system because they save time and expenses associated with lengthy trials. With the large number of criminal cases prosecuted at the state and federal level, without plea bargains, the courts would struggle to handle the workload.

Critics argue that the reliance on plea bargains as a solution is a result of overzealous prosecuting and policies stemming from the war on drugs, leading to an overwhelming number of criminal cases for the court system to handle. Instead of relying on plea bargains to alleviate the burden, they suggest reforming the policies that contribute to this reliance on criminalization.

In theory, defendants benefit from plea bargains by avoiding the publicity and costs of a trial, as well as the risk of harsher punishments. For some defendants, these benefits outweigh maintaining their innocence. However, critics claim that prosecutors possess excessive power, leading to cases where innocent individuals plead guilty.

Are Plea Bargains Coercive?

Critics argue that prosecutors have an unfair advantage over defendants due to an enormous power differential. In recent years, prosecutors have been granted more tools to pressure defendants into accepting offered deals, even when the punishment is excessive or the defendant is innocent.

Tools like pretrial detention with unaffordable bail and mandatory minimum sentences enable prosecutors to effectively pressure defendants. Pretrial detention separates defendants from their families and communities, hinders their ability to work, and subjects them to the often-traumatizing experience of being detained.

Mandatory minimum sentences mean that defendants face significantly longer imprisonment if they choose to go to trial, making a plea deal much more tempting. The significant disparity in sentencing between plea bargains and trials, known as the trial penalty, has led to the erosion of the sixth amendment’s right to a jury trial.

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The lack of transparency, combined with lax discovery rules, allows prosecutors to conceal evidence favorable to the defendant during negotiations. Defendants are left unaware of the strength of their own case. Moreover, the absence of transparency requirements means that judges and the public have little oversight over prosecutors’ use of these tools.

Pleading guilty while innocent is a troubling consequence of the coercive nature of plea bargaining. The National Registry of Exonerations and the Innocence Project have documented cases where defendants pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.

How Plea Bargains Harm Marginalized Populations

Racial bias permeates every level of the U.S. justice system, from policing to sentencing to plea bargains. However, due to the lack of transparency surrounding plea bargains, the impact of racism on bargaining outcomes remains an understudied area.

Nevertheless, recent evidence suggests significant disparities between white and Black defendants in plea deals, particularly for those without prior convictions. Prosecutors wield considerable power in plea bargaining, determining both initial charges and whether charges are reduced or dropped during negotiations. Racial biases appear to influence prosecutors’ decisions.

For example, a study in Wisconsin revealed that white defendants were 25% more likely than Black defendants to have their most serious initial charges dropped or reduced, while Black defendants were more likely to be convicted. Additionally, for defendants without prior convictions, white defendants were over 25% more likely to receive reduced charges during plea bargaining compared to Black defendants.

The study in Wisconsin further highlighted the disparity in outcomes for white and Black defendants in misdemeanor cases. White defendants were almost 75% more likely than Black defendants to have all charges associated with imprisonment dropped. Commentators note that the racist association of Blackness with criminality contributes to implicit bias affecting prosecutors, who assume higher rates of recidivism for Black defendants, even those with no prior charges.

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Socioeconomic status also influences plea bargaining outcomes in addition to racial bias. Defendants with more financial resources can afford private attorneys who can skillfully navigate plea bargains or direct the defendant to demand a trial when it is favorable. For those who cannot afford private counsel, relying on overburdened public defenders with limited resources puts them at a greater risk of plea bargains working against their best interests.

Making a Difference

Given the numerous challenges inherent in the plea bargaining system, how can lawyers make a positive impact on their clients’ lives? After all, it is a lawyer’s duty to protect the constitutional rights of all parties involved.

One approach is for attorneys to question whether there could be a better alternative. Many states encourage diversion programs that eliminate the need for plea bargains entirely. These programs remove less serious criminal matters from the formal procedures of the justice system. Defendants can consent to probation instead of going to trial. Successful completion of probation, which may include rehabilitation or restitution, results in the expungement of the matter from the records.

Strong negotiation skills are essential for navigating these complex waters. However, effective negotiators must also display dedication, responsibility, fairness, and ethical conduct in even the most challenging legal situations. These values are fundamental to St. Francis School of Law.

If you want to make a difference advocating for justice, consider becoming a world-class lawyer through the St. Francis School of Law online JD program. This program offers accessible education that emphasizes practical, professional skills extending from the classroom to the courtroom. Contact us to learn more about applying to St. Francis.