Plea agreements or plea bargains were at one point banned in Alaska. This happened in 1975 when the state Governor at the time, Avrum Goss, banned them. However, despite the fact that plea bargaining is still “officially” banned, in practice, they do happen quite frequently in many Alaskan courts. Compared to some other states, they do not happen as often. In some states, 90% of criminal cases are decided through a plea agreement, eliminating the need for a trial. So what is a plea bargain and what are the advantages and disadvantages of them?
An example of a plea bargain in Alaska
The following is a typical example of a recent plea bargain in Alaska. A Fairbanks resident, Sean Douglas Coursey, was accused of several offenses relating to the theft of a Division of Forestry truck last October. It was alleged that after he stole the truck and its load (a trailer and bulldozer) he was chased by state troopers. The pursuit ended after damage to a police vehicle, the Black Memorial Veterans Bridge and the truck itself which was a right off when it was found after Coursey abandoned it.
Coursey reached a plea agreement at a brief court hearing. He pleaded guilty to DUI, first degree theft, second degree burglary and first degree failure to stop at the direction of a police officer. He was sentenced to two years in prison as well as six months for revoking a probation order he was on following a sentence 3 years ago. He may also face having to repay the cost of repairing the bridge which he apparently set on fire and the cost of the truck replacement.
The fact that a plea agreement was made basically saved Coursey the trouble of going to trial and the possibility of a more severe sentence. If he hadn’t accepted a plea agreement he would either have to choose to plead not guilty, which on the face of the evidence seems to be an unwise choice or plead guilty but elect to go to trial.
The fact that Coursey had already been found guilty on previous charges in 2014 (when he was convicted on a burglary and assault charge) did make a difference to the plea agreement. The Superior Court Judge at the hearing told Coursey that his ability to make plea agreements might be restricted in future, if he continued to break the law.
The case for plea agreements
There are obvious advantages of plea agreements to both the accused and the criminal justice system. A plea agreement saves everyone a lot of time and money. Courts are always happy to ensure that they have less to do as long as convictions are made. Prosecutors can turn their attention to other cases. For someone who knows that they have committed an offense and have had advice from a defense attorney that they are unlikely to have a charge thrown out, the plea bargain may be the best option. It still means swallowing some bitter medicine and probably ending up with a conviction but it may be worse if they elect to go to trial.
The case against a plea agreement
There are two principal objections to plea agreements being made, each coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
The liberal view is that someone who cannot afford a good criminal defense attorney may be pressured into accepting a plea agreement even though it is possible that with a good defense that they may be declared innocent or at least have a much reduced sentence. The worry is that innocent people may agree to a plea agreement to
The more conservative view is that criminals are getting away with reduced sentences in order to reduce the time and effort that a trial might cost the state. According to this view, anyone who is found guilty at the end of a trial is likely to get a harsher sentence than if they had agreed to a plea bargain. In addition, opponents of plea agreements say that the person charged has no opportunity to face a victim if there is no trial.
Plea agreements are alive and kicking in Alaska, although officially frowned on. There is no set answer to whether a plea agreement is best for you if you have been accused of a criminal offense. The best solution is to talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney who will be able to assess your situation and suggest the best way to go forward.