Many Missouri residents have seen films or television shows that include a scene where a criminal defendant waits nervously as a jury foreperson prepares to return a verdict, but this almost never happens in the real world. That is because almost all criminal cases are resolved by plea agreements rather than trials. In 2022, 98.3% of federal criminal cases and about 95% of state criminal prosecutions were settled in this way, which is something that worries the American Bar Association. The organization released a report about plea bargaining in the United States on Feb. 23, and it does not paint the current system in a favorable light. The report was compiled by a task force of academics, judges, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys formed by the ABA in 2019.
A system based on fear
According to the ABA report, criminal defendants rarely agree to plea deals because they think the terms being offered are in their best interests. Instead, they agree to plead guilty because they are terrified of what could happen if they do not. The thing that scares them the most is the trial penalty, which is the term prosecutors use to describe the extra seven to nine years that is added on to the sentence of a defendant who refuses a plea bargain and is then found guilty by a jury.
The innocent plead guilty
The ABA report paints a picture of a system that has abandoned justice in favor of expediency, and even innocent people are victimized by it. The report describes defendants who did not commit crimes being pressured into accepting plea bargains by prosecutors who stack the charges against them and threaten them with the trial penalty. What makes this even more alarming is that defendants are often subjected to this intimidation before they or their criminal defense attorneys have even been given an opportunity to review the evidence against them. Dozens of the people exonerated by the Innocence Project spent years behind bars because they chose to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit rather than risk the consequences of losing in court.
Reform is needed
The ABA plea bargain report concludes with a list of 14 recommendations, but it is unlikely that any of them will be heeded. The current system is a dystopia for criminal defendants, but it keeps the wheels of justice turning, clears court dockets and makes life easier for prosecutors and judges.