Plea bargains are important components of the US criminal justice system. The idea behind a plea bargain is that the defendant is faced with the prospect of going to trial. It is the general assumption that if the accused choses to go to trial, they are likely to face the maximum sentence or punishment that is available for a particular crime. Thus, prosecutors take advantage of this assumption to offer the accused with a chance to plead guilty. In exchange, the prosecution will seek a less stringent sentence for the defendant. Alternatively, prosecutors can offer a defendant with the chance of pleading guilty to a lesser charge. A 2005 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that in the year 2003, between 90 and 95 percent of all cases were resolved through plea bargains.
The Reality of Plea Bargains
Plea bargains appear to be an ideal option for persons who are facing charges especially since they come with the guarantee of a lenient sentence or punishment. However, research by Bright (2008), Abrams (2011) and Chin (2013) show that in a good number of instances, a defendant is better off proceeding with their case to trial. Bright (2008) states that in most situations, persons who are arrested and charged with crimes are poor individuals. Poor individuals do not have the capacity to hire defense. Also, most people are not aware of how the law operates in courtrooms. As such, due to the assumption that fairness and justice exist in courts, they are likely to accept what seems to be the best option placed before them (Bright, 2008).
Gideon v Wainwright
Access to courtroom representation does not alleviate the problem arising from racial discrimination which in turn affects plea bargains. To understand this issue this article has to look at the case of Gideon v Wainwright. Gideon v Wainwright determined that all persons have a right to representation from an attorney (Chin, 2013). This decision meant that all persons are protected from wrongful conviction. This highlights the importance of the statement innocent till proven guilty in the judicial process. Furthermore, the case of Gideon v Wainwright led the Supreme Court to conclude that the court system has a responsibility to protect African-American individuals as well as other minorities who were facing discrimination under the Jim Crow laws (Chin, 2013).
However, this strategy was pursued in a concealed manner and in the background. Moreover, it meant that one cannot argue that they were being racially discriminated against by the prosecution because they belong to a certain minority group. Instead, cases are decided upon using racially blind techniques that are based on case facts (Chin, 2013). As highlighted by Chin (2013), Gideon v Wainwright may have worsened racial disparity in sentencing while at the same time improving the availability of counsel to minorities and poor persons.
Comparison between Cases by Trial and Cases by Plea Bargain
Abrams (2011) conducts a study that seeks to understand the differences between cases that proceed to trial and those that are settled through plea bargains. The researcher makes use of ordinary least squares regression technique to analyze the available data. This analysis leads to the following findings. First, persons who take up plea bargains are likely to be sentenced to prison terms that are 14 to 18 months longer than persons who decide to proceed to trial.
Secondly, through the use of the Priest-Klein hypothesis, the investigator notes that when lawyers go before new judges, they are likely to prefer going to trial. Further analysis leads Abrams (2011) to determine that new judges are less likely to accept plea bargains as compared to seasoned judges. Perhaps, judges who have served for longer periods have little excitement for trial and prefer to expedite judicial system processes.
For minorities, plea bargains represent a problem. As noted earlier, cases are handled with the belief that all people are equal before the law. This equality arises from the fact that all individuals regardless of their economic status or race are entitled to legal representation before the law. As such, racial discrimination is not factored in or considered in the issuance of plea bargains. Additionally, the public defense system is usually overwhelmed and does not guarantee that the accused will receive quality defense.
Since plea bargains are shown to have a high possibility of giving defendants longer sentences as compared to trials, then minority groups are the ones who are likely to receive these longer sentences. In most instances, a defendants perception of their situation influences how they will respond to plea bargains. If the accused views any form of prison term as being a disadvantageous position, then they are likely to be willing to go to trial. However, those defendants who are risk averse are likely to take up plea bargains that may be harmful to their sentencing (Abrams, 2011).
A spot check of statistics from various correctional departments across the US show one common trend. The number of minorities who have been incarcerated is statistically disproportionate. A 2016 study by Nellis for the Sentencing Project shows that African-Americans are more likely to end up in prison at a rate of 5 to 1 than their Caucasian counterparts. The true extent of the sentencing disparity is visible when one compares race in prison populations with the general populaces demographics. Nellis (2016) reports that on average, 38 percent of prisoners are African-Americans, 35 percent are Caucasians, and 21 percent are Latinos. In America, 62 percent of the population comprises of white people, 17 percent Latinos, and 13 percent are black persons.
Plea Bargains, a Racial Comparison- Manhattan
A 2016 investigation by Kutateladze, Tymas, and Crowley examined data from the Manhattan district in New York. The scope of the study encompasses over 220,000 cases that were prosecuted from the start of 2010 to the end of 2011. Kutateladze et al. (2014) ensured that their racial comparisons were accurate through the use of defendants who were facing similar charges, had similar criminal background, and had the same type or courtroom representation.
The findings of the research by Kutateladze et al. (2014) show that African-Americans were likely to receive plea deals that had jail terms at a rate that is 19 percent higher than that of white persons. Hispanics fared worse when it came to felony drug offenses as compared to other races, as they had a 14 percent higher chance of being given plea bargains that came with jail time (Kutateladze et al., 2014).
One notable exeption in the plea bargain trend among minorities comes when one examines the data for Asian-Americans. Individuals from this race are less likely to receive plea bargains that have jail time as compared to any other race. Furthermore, Asian-Americans tend to receive less harsh negotiated sentences (Kutateladze et al., 2014).
Police Influence on Plea Bargains
Fite, Wynn, and Pardini (2009) show that police are more likely to arrest African American individuals than Caucasian individuals. Aside from economic and social differences between the two races, the researchers note that racial bias influences a significant number of these arrests. Concern over racial bias from police is relevant in understanding plea bargains with regards to minorities. As illustrated in the study by Abel (2017), in some jurisdictions police have an influence in plea bargains. This can be an area of concern if police make wrongful and biased arrests. Subsequent police influence on plea bargains can further exacerbate the situation and lead to unfair prosecutions.
Plea bargains are important components of the US criminal justice system. A significant majority of cases are handled through this process. However, it also poses a problem to minority groups that are likely to receive harsh sentences. Despite the assumption that plea bargains give an individual reduced punishment or prison terms, research shows that in most cases, the opposite is true. Gideon v Wainwright made it possible for minorities and poor persons to receive legal representation. It also meant that racial biases in cases could be ignored.
Additionally, new judges are less likely to accept plea bargains as compared to seasoned judges. The number of unfavorable plea bargains given to minorities increase their numbers in prisons. Minorities receive harsher sentences than other groups when they make use of plea bargains. Lastly, the influence of police on plea bargains can further extend the effect of racial biases in the justice system if the arrests were made with bias.
Abel, J. (2017). Cops and pleas: police officers' influence on plea bargaining. The Yale Law Journal, 126 (6).
Abrams, D. (2011). Is pleading really a bargain? Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 8(1), pp.200-221.
Bright, S. (2008). The failure to achieve fairness: Race and poverty continue to influence who dies. Journal of Constitutional Law, 11(1), pp. 23-38.
Bureau of Justice Statistics (2005). State Court Sentencing of Convicted Felons. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
Chin, G. (2013). Race and the disappointing right to counsel. The Yale Law Journal, 122(2236), pp.2238-2258.
Fite, P. J., Wynn, P., & Pardini, D. A. (2009). Explaining discrepancies in arrest rates between black and white male juveniles. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77(5), 916927. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0016626Kutateladze, B., Tymas, W., and Crowley, M. (2014). Race and prosecution in Manhattan. New York: Vera Institute.
Nellis, A. (2016). The color of justice: Racial and ethnic disparity in state prisons. Washington, D.C.: Sentencing Project.
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