Plea Bargaining and the Justice
Published 19 Jan 2017
Recent studies done on the Criminal Justice System of the United States indicate that of all the convictions in our courts, 90 percent are as a result of plea bargains. Only a mere 10% of the cases end up in court. Hence it is right to argue that only a meager proportion of 1 person out of 10 ends up in trial to establish the truth behind the allegations heaped against him or her.
The former Enron assistant boss, Michael Kopper, in August 2002 pleaded guilty to fraud charges brought against him and promised to offer assistance to bring the rest of the inpiduals behind the massive scale fraud to book. He also agreed to pay restitution amounting to over 10 million dollars. The amount of time that he was to spend jail was also to be slashed considerably due to his agreeing to help nail bigger fish in one of the biggest fraud incident in the history of the United States.
Agreeably, most people would admit that this was justice for sale. This is just an exemplification of how the criminal justice system has become. The ability of this system to offer justice to all indiscriminately is highly questionable; this is the reason as to why plea bargaining is becoming increasingly unpopular. The views on the appropriateness of plea bargaining are varied, although its constitutionality is not in doubt. Majority of the public is largely dissatisfied with this saying it’s an effort to impede on its constitutional right, having in mind the abrasiveness and the intimidating nature of the power-welding prosecutors in the face of largely ignorant and scared defendants. To the officials sitting in the justice department, this is the way to go to ensure that the immense work log in their offices is eased.
This paper reiterates the call by most of the people that plea bargaining, whether it is necessary or not, impedes on the rights of some people to get a free and fair hearing in the court of law. John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban soldier, in 2002 entered a guilty plea. In his plea, he agreed to the charges brought against him by the state that he had served in the Taliban army and carried offensive weapons for them. His lawyers had put up a spirited fight alleging that he had been mistreated and tortured by the United States army.
Had he not entered a plea, he could have served over 90 years; this was reduced to 20 years. Because of this plea, we will never know what transpired when Walker was allegedly tortured and neither are the people that thought that he could have faced the full wrath of the law satisfied, for indeed he had been a part of the conspiracy planning to unleash harm to American citizens and interests.
The saddening fact about plea bargaining is that it ends up working to the benefit of the justice system and people faced by hard crimes; it rarely works positively for the petty offenders. This stems from the fact that mostly violent criminals and other big case fraudsters have something to give in terms of information and restitution that is valuable to the justice system more than the low time offenders (Schmalleger, F, 312).
As afore mentioned, majority of the people are intimidated by the prosecutors and high profile lawyers in the corridors of justice, whether or not one is guilty or not. Majority of lawyers admit that more than 90 percent of the trial cases end up in to a conviction. This is as a result of the inherent flaws in our justice system. Again no one is ever certain that if he or she goes ahead and gets into trial, an acquittal is guaranteed. It is an unknown wilderness, where anything can happen. This is what drives many people into plea bargaining, to get a slash of a sentence of a crime which probably they never committed. The poor are sometimes the worst victims.
The case of Erma Faye Stewart and Regina Kelly remains an eye opener. Both had been arrested on questionable grounds when a rather unreliable informant alleged that these two, together with others, were involved in drug distribution. They could not afford the huge bond and had to spend time in jail. Faced with the unfounded threat of a large sentence and fine, Stewart took the offer of a plea bargaining for a crime she had not committed. She got probation of 10 years and a fine thus tainting her rather good books.
For those who went ahead into the trial room, it was established that there was no evidence that could stand and all the cases had to be dismissed. Stewart had already agreed to a plea and released on the basis of that plea, yet there was no case against her. This is a huge injustice and is a common fate that befalls a lot of people especially in the low income bracket.
Those that support plea bargaining especially from the justice department cite the economics at play. This is justified by the meager amount that is allocated by to the justice departments in comparison to the intensity of the cases they have to cope with. If the whole of the amount is allocated to each case and assuming that all the cases went into trial, the states would not have adequate funds to conduct tenable investigations, by plea bargaining, the states and the relevant courts are able to save a lot of funds and time and hence focus adequately on the few that go to court, ensuring that they get a conviction. This is their argument.
Many however see a conflict of interest at play here rather than economics. The public a times allege that laxity and the egoistic nature of the prosecutors is the main reason. The defenders provided by the state to the accused are not paid full time but rather for the first few hours, by advising their clients to plea bargain they are basically saving themselves from taking unnecessary extra miles that will not be compensated. On their side, the prosecutors profiles are built on the basis of the number of conviction they have to their name, very few hence can afford to lose a case; this a times may be at the expense of justice.
Dispensation of justice should not only be for the satisfaction of the justice department but also the public. To most people, plea bargains are not hard enough for the nature of the crimes committed by some defendants. It is not uncommon for people accused of murder, probably facing an eminent execution, escaping with a relatively minor sentence under manslaughter having entered a plea to evade execution. It has to be understood that plea bargains are but negotiations entered into between the prosecutors and defendant to compel a defendant to accept an offense that is less than the original one, hoping that another harsher sentence will be extinguished and the sentence be lenient. (Garner, B.A, p 1173)
The above happens in most cases at the proposal by the prosecution side. There are a times that prosecutors feel that their case is lacking in crucial evidence and would not hold the onslaught of the defense. This is a tactic used where there is no possibility of an acquittal or a conviction. It is done at the expense of the accused who is entangled in the web of a power game between the prosecutor and the defender who both hope to save a face. The unfairness in plea bargains stem from the lack of uniformity in the plea bargains entered and the sentences. The justice system is supposed to thrive on wheels greased by consistency, fairness and impartiality, plea bargains are a big threat to these ideals.
In most cases it is the prosecutor who decides on the nature of sentence to be meted out as well as the charges to be dropped. These concessions are mostly done by the prosecution yet in the trial courts it is the prerogative of the judges. Sentences to be given and the nature of charges to be preferred or dropped is a decision made on the perceived importance of the information or restitutions such that big sentences can be quashed on that basis.
This is where consistency and uniformity lacks in the sentences on similar crimes in across the states and courts. This is what impedes on the provision of justice to all. An example of where consistency has been lacking in plea bargaining is where in May 2005, an army judge could not accept a guilty plea from a certain private in the belief that he had not committed the said crime. The private was hoping to have her possible sentence thrashed half fold. This is uncommon (Nardulli, P.F, 347).
Consistency would also lack where people who refuse to plea bargain get a harsher sentence than one that plea bargain, yet both are within their constitutional rights. This is a clear indication of how this practice has brought unfairness and inconsistency in the justice system and yet is proclaims to do the opposite in broad words.
Although there are certain cases where a plea bargain is acceptable, like on matters pertaining to national security and classified information, plea bargaining should be limited to bare necessity. Uniformity in the sentences must be upheld if justice has to be seen to be done in the United States Justice System.
- FRONTLINE, Erma Faye Stewart and Regina Kelly. Posted on June 17, 2004, Retrieved on 15/01/08
- Dirk Olin, Plea Bargain. The New York times magazine, September 29, 2002. Retrieved on 15/01/08
- Garner, B.A Blacks law dictionary (7th ed). St. Paul: West Group. 1999: 1173
- Nardulli, PF. “insider” Justice: Defense attorneys and the handling of felony cases. The journal of criminal law and criminology 77, 1986: 376-417
- Schmalleger, F. Criminal justice today: An introductory text for the twenty first century (6th Ed) Englewood, NJ: Prentice – Hall 2001; 312