Plea bargains are regarded as an integral part of the U.S. legal system. They were once banned in Alaska, for reasons that will be explored below, but it is almost universally recognized that without them, courts would become so clogged up that they would grind to a halt.
What exactly is a plea bargain?
Plea bargains are a feature of criminal cases that involve an agreement between the defendant and prosecutor to avoid having to go to trial. Plea bargains can benefit the defendant, the prosecutor and the courts, but there are doubts whether society at large obtains any benefits from their occurrence.
The benefits of plea bargains include:
- far fewer cases go to trial, freeing up court time for the most serious of cases;
- the legal system is less costly as a result of speedier decisions about cases;
- prosecutors are freed up as they spend less time pursuing a conviction and can concentrate on more serious or contentious cases;
- defendants receive convictions for lesser crimes and therefore spend less time in jail or prison.
Types of plea bargains
There are three main types of plea bargains. Charge bargains are plea bargains in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a charge which is less severe than the original charge. For example, the defendant may agree to plead guilty to a charge of manslaughter, rather than murder. Charge bargains are by far and away the most common type of plea bargains in the U.S. legal system, including Alaska’s.
Sentence bargains are when a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a charge, as long as the sentence is lighter than it could be. This type of plea bargaining is more strictly controlled and not so popular. In most states where it is allowed, it is often left to judges to determine whether a plea bargain of this type is allowed to take place.
Fact bargains are much rarer. They occur when a defendant agrees to certain facts being used in determining guilt and not others.
The case for plea bargains
The main case for allowing plea bargains is that there is simply not the space, time or money to allow every criminal case to go to trial. Plea bargains save everyone, including defendants and the legal system, money and time and keep courts less congested. In fact, the number of criminal cases that are determined by plea bargains is around 90% on average across America. It is not hard to imagine what would happen if there was an immediate ban on plea bargains.
The case against plea bargains
Some people regard plea bargains as unethical. This is because the case is determined without a proper trial and the judgment of a judge and jury. It is dependent on the whim of the prosecutor whose main justification may be saving time and money while achieving a result of some kind.
Plea bargains were severely restricted in Alaska in 1975 by the state’s Attorney General. Sentence bargaining was prohibited and charge bargaining actively discouraged. Alaska was not the only state to ban plea bargaining or severely limit its use and the system is not used at all in several other advanced countries. In Alaska, a report issued in 1978 stated that the ban on plea bargaining did not seem to have caused extra congestion in the courts and helped to “reinforce responsibility in every level of the judicial process.”
Nevertheless, the ban was overturned in the 1990s and plea bargaining is certainly an important part of the Alaskan justice system today. In fact, 97% of criminal cases are now resolved pre-trial by some form of plea bargaining. There still remain doubts about its use. While charge bargaining is still widely permitted, sentence bargaining has again come under renewed restriction.
The state’s Attorney General in 2014, Michael Geraghty, banned sentence bargaining 3 months after the high profile case of Jerry Active. Active had been released after spending only years in prison as part of a plea bargain for an assault. The day he was released he went on to murder an elderly couple and sexually assault another elderly person and a child. Whether a longer sentence imposed by a judge rather than an agreed deal arranged between a prosecutor and Active’s attorney would have made any difference to his crime is a moot point.
Whatever the view policy makers take of plea bargains, it is highly unlikely they are going to ever go away. The challenge remains in how they are managed rather than whether they should exist at all.
If you have been accused of a crime, you should contact criminal defense attorney, Dattan Scott Dattan, as soon as possible. He will vigorously defend your innocence, negotiate a plea bargain or will fight to represent you in court. You can contact the Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan in Anchorage at 907-276-8008.