Three Reasons Why Plea Bargains Are So Controversial

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

While we are used to seeing criminal cases play out before juries on television shows and in cinemas, the truth is that nowadays most criminal cases are resolved behind closed doors in the form of plea bargains. During a plea bargain, the accused agrees to plead guilty to some or all of the charges against him or her in exchange for some sort of concession from the prosecution, such as reduced charges or the recommendation of a lower sentence. In many cases, the prosecution will also expect the accused to do something else in exchange for such concessions, such as testifying as a witness in another criminal trial. While plea bargains account for the vast majority of convictions in felony cases nowadays, they are highly controversial. Here are three reasons why plea bargains stir up so much debate.

Guilty People Get Off Easy

One popular complaint against plea bargains is that they result in relatively light sentences for people who are guilty of criminal offenses. In many plea bargains, the prosecutor agrees to drop the more serious charges against the defendant or else will recommend to the judge a reduction in sentencing. As a result, the defendant will often receive a sentence that is lower through a plea bargain than he or she would have received had the case gone to trial and resulted in a guilty verdict. The counterargument to this point, however, is that a trial provides no guarantee of a conviction and that at least a plea bargain results in a guilty verdict.

Constitutional Rights Are Compromised

Conversely, many legal experts criticize plea bargains for compromising the constitutional rights of defendants. In fact, when entering into a plea bargain defendants agree to waive a number of their constitutional rights, including the right to a trial by jury, the right not to self-incriminate, and the right to question hostile witnesses. It is important to note, however, that although plea bargains do require the waiver of constitutional rights, the constitutionality of plea bargains themselves have repeatedly been upheld by the Supreme Court.

Innocent People May Plead Guilty

Finally, one of the most controversial aspects of plea bargains is that they occasionally lead to wrongful convictions. In some cases, an innocent defendant may choose to plead guilty to a reduced sentence over fear that going to trial could lead to a wrongful conviction on a higher charge. In fact, a number of studies have shown that about 10 percent of exonerated felons were originally convicted on the basis of a false guilty plea, almost always the result of a plea bargain. While pleading guilty to a crime one is innocent of may sound strange, it can act as a self-protective measure in some instances.

Plea bargaining does have its advantages, such as freeing up court resources and resulting in convictions that may otherwise be difficult to obtain. However, because plea bargains can lead to light sentences, the waiver of constitutional rights, and, in some cases, even wrongful convictions, they are a tool whose use will likely remain controversial well into the future.

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