Plea bargains really let criminals off easy? Attorneys please weigh in.

We always hear of some thug getting off easy because he struck a deal with the prosecution, but is that really the direction things usually go in? It seems to me just as likely, in some cases, that someone who was really innocent
ends up pleading guilty to a lesser offense out of fear that
they might lose the trial anyway. So it seems to me that some of the worse offenders might be getting a break here and there, but other defendants on the other end of the crime scale might be getting a raw deal.

That was never my experience.

In general, plea bargains were an indespensible part of the justice system; there were not enough judges, courtrooms, or prosecutors to try every single defendent.

For the Commonwealth, it’s a good way to save time and lock in a sure verdict. For the accused, it’s a good way to lessen the punishment for their acts.

While I grant that it’s possible, I never saw anyone who was factually innocent take a plea. Truth told, I saw damn few who I thought might be factually innocent get indicted.

  • Rick

If you are interested, I started this thread in the Pit this morning about a very similar subject.

It seems in Maryland, an agreement will be made to hold a bogus sentencing hearing for the public and victim/victim’s families to see. However, the criminal then comes back into the courtroom later, in proceedings that are closed to the public, to have the judge either let him go or reduce the sentence significantly.

It is necessary to have some mechanism to avoid every potentially triable criminal act going to trial- too expensive and just too awkward.

Many possible cases fall before entering, formally, the trial system.

The question is ‘What to do with those that go to indictments and potential trial?’

Far better plea bargaining than the bastard system that has grown up in England where plea-bargaining is strictly (at least formally) illegal.

To avoid the log jam in English courts, the government has eroded (and is currently continuing the eroding of) the right to jury trial- trying more and more cases summarily before government appointed lay judges- magistrates.

And just to see what can happen with no constitution to speak of, 25 years ago the government decided that two out of twelve people could find someone innocent, yet they would still be guilty in the eyes of the law.

And until recently the government had a virtually unassailable right to withhold, or to ban, evidence in a trial if it was unpalatable to the government of the time.

No, I am not too keen on our system!

While I agree with Bricker that it’s uncommon, I would like to suggest some things.

  1. Being close to, around or knowing some one who does a crime, can implicate you, depending on circumstances.

  2. The conspiracy laws and drug laws in particular can make for some interesting situations.

For example -While I would agree, for instance, that oftimes shoplifters and others committing retail fraud (bad checks/bad credit cards) act in tandem with other people, even serious shoplifters et al have friends/relatives who aren’t in the trade. I’ve known of folks who were with some one who was stealing, and not involved, but got busted as well. (not clients).

sometimes just giving some one a ride can do it, family members of drug dealers are often put into odd positions, too - were they really part of the criminal conspiracy or were they having a birthday party for their grandchild.

And, if you’re given a choice “plead guilty to this, we’ll guarentee you a years probation or go to trial and risk prison for 5 years” - I don’t have a hard time believing some folks would opt for it.

is it common? - doubt it. Impossible? not at all.

Bricker’s got a point. In his book Guilty! (an excellent read, I might add), the late judge Harold Rothwax made the same argument (that without plea bargains, the justice system would grind to a halt).

In fact, he relates a story of when he was a prosecutor. A judge announced that there would be no plea bargains in his courtroom. Rothwax told him that if he did that, there would be an incredible backlog of cases. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened.

If a defendant is going to have the right to a “speedy trial” then plea bargains are a neccessary evil that is here to stay.

Zev Steinhardt

It’s worth pointing out, too, that there are some cases that the Commonwealth simply doesn’t want to take to trial. The trauma of forcing a child-victim to testify is often a good reason to seek a plea, for instance.

And the unfortunate reality is - especially in sexual assaults - that there are “good victims” and “bad victims.” The rape of a minister’s wife is much more likely to go to trial than the rape of a homeless drug addict - because the Commonwealth knows that the jury will be much easier to convince when the victim is a “good woman.” When they have a witness that won’t impress a jury, they’re more likely to offer deals.

And, believe it or not – this is a good thing. Juries do acquit when they don’t like the victim. And rapists go unpunished as a result. It’s better to get a plea to a lesser offense and some jail time than risk an outright acquittal.

Unfortunately, things can work out the other way, too. If a case has a fair amount of publicity, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s office is getting a lot of press attention, they may not offer any pleas, not based on the strength of their case or regard for the victims, but simply as a response to the press.

In general, though, the stronger the Commonwealth’s case, the harder bargain they insist upon.

Finally, there are the myriad games that can be played even after an agreement is reached – I’ve seen CAs piously “recommend” a five-year sentence, in accord with the agreement, and then present isolated facts from the PSI and previous convictions that may as well scream, “I have to say five years, Your Honor, but you get the real picture here, right?”

  • Rick

Excellents points, everyone.

I’d like to raise an issue that’s been only touched on in passing so far - plea bargains in exchange for testimony.

Watcher opinion on the topic generally and, particularly, there was a fascinating case a few years ago coming out of, IIRC, the 8th Circuit. The appellate court found that plea bargaining in exchange for testimony violated federal witness tampering law. I haven’t heard what’s happened since.

Whether or not the appellate court went too far, it’s a fair point - reduced/eliminated jail time would be a huge incentive to perjury.


It seems that in the Rampart scandal here in Los Angeles, there were quite a few folks that were innocent and plea bargained.

If you know the cops are going to testify against you on the stand, you do not have a prayer.

You probably have already done time, so it might be a good idea to get it down to probabtion

If this is your second strike, a plea bargain to a misdemeanor could keep you from going to jail for a long, long time.

I was on a jury a couple years ago for a bank robbery, the best evidence against the defendant in my case was the testimony of one of his accomplices in the robbery who had already been convicted.

We were told that he was getting a sentence reduction and several charges dropped in exchange for his testimony, but not that those included a 2nd degree murder.

We generally found him to be a poor witness and there were some major contradictions in his story, and we only convicted him on 2 of 5 charges because of this.

After the post trial chats with the attorney and prosecutor I felt like I hadnt really done society any favors by convicting this guy since someone just as bad (if not worse) will be back on the street in like 7 years because of his testimony). Although our defendant did did get 35 years (due to priors and or weapon endorsements this was a “3rd strike”) I still kinda felt like have we really fixed anything?

To make matters worse the defense wanted to “interview” jurors after the fact and hired a private investigator to track us down and try to coerce information out of us that might get an appeal. The happy part was that apparently he was a little too successful at finding us and a little too agressive in his tactics since I heard he ended up in court for “harassing jurors” (I dont know what the actual charge is called).