Bill of Frights – Plea Bargaining

What could be more frightening than violations of our constitutional rights? But is everything that appears to be a violation actually one? Join us as we explore some current constitutional issues. We hope you enjoy our Bill of Frights!

When accused of a crime, every citizen possesses the right to a fair trial–some details of what a fair trial encompasses are laid out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But some worry that mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines are shifting the scales of justice and placing too much power in the hands of prosecutors, thus making it challenging for citizens to receive a fair trial.

The past few decades have seen a steady decrease in the number of felony cases brought to trial. In the 1970s, the ratio of felony cases that made it to trial was about one in 12. Today, some estimates put the number at fewer than one in 40. Observers of the criminal justice system partly attribute this shift to sentencing laws prosecutors leverage when negotiating with individuals accused of a crime.

There are practical reasons that explain the criminal justice systems increase use of plea bargains including a near three-fold increase in felony case loads. With courts around the country clogged up with cases, is it reasonable to expect every single case will find its way to trial?  In addition, the idea that a plea bargain–a voluntary agreement (or rather contract) between the accused and a prosecutor–could be construed as potentially subverting or undermining the right to a fair trial is itself problematic. If the accused desires to have a trail, then a trial of some form will commence.

Still, some contend that the “choice” aspect of plea bargains is not as robust as it may appear. In an interview with PBS’s Frontline, Yale law professor John Langbein said, “the problem with choice arguments is that they neglect the main dynamic of plea bargaining which is the pressure that the prosecutor puts on you to do it his way. Plea bargain works by threat. What the prosecutor says to a criminal defendant in plea bargaining is, ‘Surrender your right to jury trial, or if you go to trial and are convicted of an offense, we will see to it that you are punished twice. Once for the offense, and once for having had the temerity to exercise your right to jury trial.’ That is a coercive system.”

In 2004, Judge William Young, a federal magistrate in Boston, lambasted the criminal justice system in a 177-page decision in which he said, “the focus of our entire criminal justice system has shifted away from trials and juries and adjudication to a massive system of sentence bargaining that is heavily rigged against the accused.”

Despite these complaints, some experts point to the notion that the problems surrounding plea bargains are procedural in nature. In a 2003 article for Regulation Magazine, Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation wrote, “But there are sufficient justifications for plea bargaining. Its flaws are procedural, not constitutional, and it needs reform, not abolition.” And even though the Framers did not include plea bargains in the Constitution (only jury trials are mentioned), that, in of itself, does not prove the mechanism unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled on the constitutionality of plea bargains on several occasions. In Santobello v. New York (1971), the Court found that plea bargains are not only constitutional, but “an essential component of the administration of justice” and that “[so long as it is] properly administered, [plea bargaining] is to be encouraged.”

The most famous Supreme Court case on plea bargains is North Carolina v. Alford (1970). In that case, the Court found plea bargains to be constitutional regardless of whether the accused only plead guilty to avoid the possibility of a harsher sentence at trial. (In Alford, a defendant who claimed innocence pleaded to a sentence of life in order to avoid a mandatory death penalty sentence that would have resulted had he lost the trial.)

But critics of the plea bargaining method still see a problem with a system that makes going to trial seem so unreasonable the innocent people will plead out to crimes they didn’t commit.

What do you think? Does the combination of harsh sentencing laws and plea bargains undermine the accused right to a fair trial?

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