Plea Bargaining

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Plea bargaining in the United States is a controversial issue because the practice of plea bargaining is necessary as long as the United States has high crime rates and insufficient facilities and personnel to try all cases; plea bargaining allows the flexibility necessary if the system is to respond with any degree of concern for the circumstances of individual cases, however, it may also entice defendants to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit rather than risk their constitutional right to trial. In addition, as will be stated later, there are numerous arguments in favor for as well as against plea bargaining. So, what is plea bargaining and how did it originate? Although there is no definition which has been agreed upon in regard to plea bargaining, Worrall (2010) includes two definitions: 1) a specific definition found in Black’s Law Dictionary, and 2) a more general definition. Black’s Law Dictionary defines plea bargaining as, “the process whereby the accused and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval. It usually involves the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser offense or to only some of the counts of a multicounty indictment in return for a lighter sentence than the possible sentence for the graver charge.” Plea bargaining has been defined in a more general sense as, “the defendant’s agreement to plead guilty to a criminal charge with the reasonable expectation of receiving some consideration from the state.”

Plea bargaining has been around since the early 1800s according to the earliest records found. Commonwealth v. Battis (1 Mass. 95 [1804]) is one of the earliest reported cases involving plea bargaining and following Battis, according to Worrall (2010) “the court expressed concern that some of what could be called plea bargaining was taking place without the approval of the courts” (p. 348) in the case of Edwards v. People, 39 Mich. 760 [1878]. By the second half of the nineteenth century, plea bargaining became a moderately common practice. It was not until the 1900s that plea bargaining became more extensively practiced when crime commissions, such as the New York State Crime Commission, began their studies in the 1920s which revealed an inflation in the practice of plea bargaining. For example, “The Georgia Department of Public Welfare reported that the rate of pleading guilty increased 70 percent from 1916 to 1921. Similarly, statistics in New York revealed that between 1839 and 1920, the guilty plea rate rose to some 90 percent of all cases” (Worrall, 2010, p. 348).

However, despite this increase in plea bargaining, the U.S. Supreme Court did not recognize plea bargaining as appropriate and even essential to the criminal justice system until the 1970s. While the process of plea bargaining prohibits threatened physical harm or mental coercion which might result in an involuntary plea by the defendant, the Court (in 1971), “approved plea bargaining as a means of managing overloaded criminal dockets, referring to the process as ‘an essential component’ of the criminal process, which ‘properly administered…is to be encouraged’” (Reid, 2008, p. 216). Contrary to the apparently necessary practice of plea bargaining, it has continued to be a controversial issue within the United States justice system. There have been numerous arguments in support of and against plea bargaining. The majority of the arguments in support of the plea bargaining process surround the benefits of achieving plea agreements. Plea bargaining, according to supporters, beneficially affects four parties: 1) the court, 2) the prosecutor, 3) the defense attorney and defendant, and 4) the victim. The prosecutor may benefit from plea bargaining in that it produces an extended ability to lessen a busy case load. Since District attorneys cannot prosecute every case that comes before them due to limited resources, “cases that do not look promising may be...
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