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Courts, Criminal Trials, And Sentencing

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Courts, Criminal Trials, and Sentencing

Plea-bargaining has been a method used in the United States stemming back after the period of the Declaration of Independence. It has been used as a way to keep jails from being over-crowded with the hopes of giving offenders a second chance to rehabilitate themselves. On the other hand, are we giving some criminals an easy out for their crimes? Or are we giving individuals a second chance to redeem themselves? In this paper, I will discuss the history behind plea-bargaining as well as pros and cons of it.



The history of plea-bargaining dates back to 1633, where Galileo was on house arrest from the Inquisition in exchange for his reciting penitential psalms weekly and recanting Copernican heresies (Olin, D. 2002). In the United States, recorded history signifies the beginning of plea-bargaining right after the Declaration of Independence era. In the 1800's, plea-bargaining was entering a guilty plea in exchange for a lesser sentence. By the middle to late 1800's, criminal investigations became more defined in terms of police work and lawyers involvement. The court system was defined by municipal and police courts to hold minor prosecutions as crimes increasingly grew. In the 19th century, jury trials were prescribed for almost all criminal offenses (Rabe, 2002).

Plea-Bargaining Today

There are two different types of plea-bargaining:

(1) Charge Bargain - A charge bargain occurs when the prosecutor allows a defendant to "plead guilty to a lesser charge," or to only some of the charges that have been filed against him, and:

(2) Sentence Bargain - Sentence bargaining sometimes occurs in high profile cases, where the prosecutor does not want to reduce the charges against the defendant. A sentence bargain may allow the prosecutor to obtain a conviction to the most serious charge, while assuring the defendant of an acceptable sentence.

As criminal courts become ever more crowded, prosecutors and judges feel increased pressure to move cases quickly through the system. Trials can take days, weeks or sometimes months while guilty pleas can often be arranged in minutes. In addition, the outcome of any given trial is usually unpredictable but, a plea bargain provides both prosecution and defense with some control over the result.

For these reasons and others, and despite its many critics, plea-bargaining is very common. More than 90% of convictions come from negotiated pleas, which means that less than 10% of criminal cases result in a trial. And though some still view plea bargains as secret, sneaky arrangements that are antithetical to the people's will; the federal government and many states have written rules that explicitly set out how plea bargains may be arranged and accepted by the court.

In theory, a plea bargain may be negotiated at any time after an arrest. In practice, however, the time to plead depends on the court and the jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions allow plea bargains only during certain phases of the criminal process. In many other places, however, plea bargains can be worked out virtually any time -- from shortly after the defendant is arrested (before the prosecutor files criminal charges) up to the time a verdict is reached -- even during trial itself. In addition, if the trial results in a hung jury (the jurors are split and cannot make the unanimous decision required), the prosecution and defense may (and often do) negotiate a plea rather than go through yet another trial (Nolo Law for All, 2004 â„-).

Within the United States, not all jurisdictions use plea-bargaining, although most do. Today, with the magnitude of criminal cases on both federal and state levels growing plea-bargaining is used quite often. For most defendants, the principal benefit of plea bargaining is receiving a lighter sentence for a less severe charge than might result from taking the case to trial and losing. Thus, it is inevitable that if the defendant did not take the plea-bargain he would suffer a lot severe penalty.

Reasons why a defendant would accept a plea-bargain:

(1) Getting Out of Jail - Defendants who are held in custody who do not qualify for release on their own recognizance or who either do not have the right to bail or cannot afford bail may get out of jail immediately following the judge's acceptance of a plea. Depending on the offense, the defendant may get out altogether, on probation, with or without some community service obligations. Or, the defendant may have to serve more time, but will still get out much sooner than if he or she insisted on going to trial.

(2) Resolving the Matter Quickly. This has the intangible benefit, touched on above, of providing resolution to the stress of being charged with a crime. Going to trial usually requires a much longer wait and causes much more stress than taking a plea bargain.

(3) Having Fewer or Less Serious Offenses on One's Record. Pleading guilty or no contest in exchange for a reduction in the number of charges or the seriousness of the offenses looks a lot better on a defendant's record than the convictions that might result following trial. This can be particularly important if the defendant is ever convicted in the future. For example, a second conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) may carry mandatory jail time; whereas if the first DUI offense had been bargained down to reckless driving, there may be no jail time for the "second" DUI.

Even for people who are never rearrested, getting a charge reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, or from a felony that constitutes a strike under a "three strikes" law to one that doesn't, can prove to be a critical benefit. Some professional licenses must be forfeited upon conviction of a felony. Future employers may not want to hire someone previously convicted of a felony. Felony convictions may be used in certain court proceedings (even civil cases) to discredit people who testify as witnesses. Felons can't own or possess firearms. And in many jurisdictions, felons can't vote.

(4) Having a Less Socially Stigmatizing Offense on One's Record - Prosecutors may reduce charges that are



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