Plea Bargains and Mandatory Sentencing

Plea bargains and mandatory sentencing are two aspects of the American Criminal Justice System that often go hand-in-hand. Both were designed with good intentions to increase the quality and efficiency of the system. Both are also highly controversial, especially as their downfalls have become evident.

In a criminal court case, a plea bargain is a deal offered by the prosecutor to the defendant as an incentive to plead guilty. (Larson 2000) Ideally, a plea bargain serves the interest of all involved. The prosecutor secures a guilty plea, the defendant is guaranteed a less severe punishment, and the defense attorney has a satisfied client and can move on to the next case.

The idea behind plea bargains, other than making defendants, prosecutors, and defense attorneys happy, is to speed up the justice system. Courts all over the U.S. are bogged down with voluminous amounts of criminal cases. Plea bargains offer a solution that saves the time and expense of trials, jury selections, appeals, etc. Some opponents of plea bargains, however, believe they reduce the American system of justice to a business affair. In some instances, this is probably true. The court system is supposed to seek justice for the victim by punishing the accused in an appropriate manner. In a way, plea bargains may offer the offender an opportunity to “play the system.” On the flip side, plea bargains used in cases involving possible mandatory sentences might be seen as exactly the opposite. It’s possible for the system of plea bargains to be abused by prosecutors as well; which carries us into the next topic: mandatory sentencing.

Mandatory sentencing in the American system of justice is lawmakers’ response to what they perceive as a desire by the American public to end judicial leniency. Some state and all federal criminal statutes include mandatory sentences, requiring judges to impose specific and identical sentences on all defendants of the same crime. However, just recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences are no longer required. They may be used as recommendations or guidelines, but sentencing discretion is now back in the hands of the judges.

Mandatory sentences were leading to booming jail populations, excessive punishments for first-time offenders, and prosecutors over-stacking charges to elicit plea bargains through fear of severe punishment. Due to America’s “war on drugs,” most federal drug offenses carried mandatory sentences in which the judge had no discretion. As a result, many first-time drug offenders were receiving more severe punishments than violent criminals like rapists, robbers, and child molesters. (Drug Policy Alliance 2001)

Mandatory sentences were initially brought about in the 1970s and 80s with the intent to “get tough on crime.” While they were designed with good intent, these laws ended up being misused. Prosecutors who abused them would stack charges they knew they couldn’t prosecute in court, then threaten defendants and coerce them into plea bargains for fear of being imprisoned for 50 years or more. Also, several studies done by independent research corporations showed that mandatory sentencing laws did little to accomplish their initial purpose of deterring crime. A study done by the RAND Corporation showed that, “states with neither a three-strikes nor a truth-in-sentencing law had the lowest rates of index crimes, whereas index crime rates were highest in states with both types of get-tough laws.” (Drug Policy Alliance 2001)

While plea bargains have a legitimate place in the criminal justice system, they need to be employed correctly and fairly. With the voiding of mandatory sentences by the U.S. Supreme Court, one way in which plea bargains were abused has been eliminated. Prosecutors can no longer threaten mandatory sentences in order to coerce a guilty plea. However, many still see plea bargains as unconstitutional and unethical because they put an entire court case in the prosecutor’s hands. However, it is the defendant’s rights we are concerned about. If the defendant chooses voluntarily (meaning without coercion, mind you) to enter a guilty plea in exchange for reduced charges or sentencing, have we not preserved that person’s rights?

On the flip-side of that thought, what about the victim and victim’s family? How is it justice that a prosecutor and defendant decide the entire case without a jury or judge entering the equation? Then again, it wouldn’t be practical to try every case in the system. I personally believe plea bargains serve a role in the system. But we need to ensure they are carried out fairly and in the appropriate circumstances.

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