“97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.” (USSC, Missouri vs. Frye, 2012)
Think about that for a minute — 19 out of 20 criminal cases never-go-to-trial.
These cases are disposed of through a guilty plea that resulted from a plea agreement. The defendant never gets a trial, and goes directly to jail.
It’s called “plea bargaining,” but there is little-to-no actual bargaining that takes place. A plea offer can be made even before the case goes to a grand jury, and the defendant has no idea how strong, or weak, the prosecutor’s case might be. The prosecutor has a very, very long list of often-overlapping charges to pick from that can be “stacked” to build a breathtakingly long anticipated sentence, which he can use to “bargain” (read threaten) with the defendant. And the ability to “stack” is further augmented for charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences. It’s pretty much a “take it or leave it” deal. The ONLY bargaining power the defendant has is to refuse the plea offer, forcing the prosecutor to take the case to trial. This is the genesis of the so-called “trial penalty,” which has been well covered on this blog here and here. The defendant can take whatever the prosecutor offers, or expose himself to an exceedingly long sentence at trial.
In accepting a plea agreement, the defendant obviously gives up his constitutional right to a jury trial, but he may also have to give up his right to appeal, or to file civil suit, or to even talk about the case. And then once convicted of a felony, there is a whole list of other collateral consequences as well.
Amelia Whaley is a JD candidate at the Duke University School of Law. While working as an intern for the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, she wrote a paper summarizing the practice of plea bargaining as it exists today in the US. I think it is just excellent, and is the best overall synopsis of plea bargaining I have seen. If you want to understand what plea bargaining is all about, and how it really works, please read Ms. Whaley’s paper here: Plea Agreements – Whaley.
If you’re interested in a little further reading, this article by Timothy Lynch at the Cato Institute, Cato – Plea Bargains, covers the 1978 US Supreme Court case (Bordenkircher v. Hayes) that established the precedent for plea bargaining – a case in which a man wound up in prison for life – for passing a bad $88 check.