In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court said that “plea bargaining . . . is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.”
Over 95% of all criminal charges in the U.S. are resolved via plea bargain. That’s not simply because bringing all those people to trial would grind the courts to a halt. It’s often because prosecutors use specific techniques to coerce people into agreeing to plead guilty.
Far too often, those people are innocent. Recently, the ACLU profiled three innocent people who were coerced into pleading guilty. They are far from alone, but they underscore some of the tools prosecutors use to convince people to plead guilty even or when it’s not in their best interest.
George A. knew he was innocent when he was charged with assaulting a prison guard, but he pled guilty when told that, if he went to trial, he was facing a 10-year minimum sentence. What George wasn’t told was that prosecutors had a video of the incident that proved his innocence.
Lavette M. was charged with aggravated assault after an altercation with her mother-in-law, which seems to have been an over-charge. She was held in jail for 14 months on an unaffordable $250,000 bail, unable to see or touch her children, until she lost her job and her health failed. She pled guilty to end the ordeal.
Ray C. insisted on his innocence from the beginning in a case that was paper thin. The state of Georgia, however, refused to test his DNA and exonerate him. Instead, when he demanded a trial, the state retaliated by seeking the death penalty. He was executed last year.
Plea bargaining ought to be a fair negotiation between prosecution and defense, just like a trial is supposed to be a fair fight. But there are several ways prosecutors sometimes take advantage in a way that can coerce people into taking plea bargains that are not in their best interest:
Pretrial detention: Bail that is too high keeps people in jail before their cases are heard. This can put enormous pressure on a defendant to plead guilty.
Mandatory minimum sentences and sentence enhancements: Prosecutors sometimes threaten to bring even more serious charges against defendants who choose trial.
Hiding favorable evidence until trial: This makes it impossible for defendants to fairly evaluate their chances and the value of a plea bargain.
In addition, there is very little oversight of how prosecutors achieve plea bargains, and judges are allowed to basically rubber-stamp these agreements.
If you have been charged with a crime, a plea bargain might be your best option. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney to negotiate with the prosecutor.