Carefully weigh the consequences of entering a plea bargain
Criminal defendants have the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial which forces the government to prove their case in court beyond a reasonable doubt. But only 5,242 of the 568,408 criminal cases resolved in California in 2019 were decided by a jury trial according to the National Center for State Courts. Defendants may sometimes surrender important rights and needlessly go to jail by entering a plea agreement.
Supreme Court approves
The U.S. Supreme Court disapproved of the practice of exchanging an admission of guilt for a lesser criminal sentence before 1970. In that year, however, the Court ruled that a negotiated guilty plea may be permitted if it is motivated by the defendant’s wish to accept the certainty of a lesser sentence rather than risking a more severe post-trial sentence.
States then created harsher mandatory sentences for drug-related and other convictions. While these laws restrict the judge’s sentencing discretion, prosecutors may decide whether to charge defendants with more serious crimes to get a negotiated guilty plea.
Negotiated guilty pleas seemingly have several benefits. Defendants avoid the costs of mounting a criminal defense and facing the uncertain result of a trial. Prosecutors do not have to devote time preparing and participating in lengthy trials. Judges spend less time presiding at trials and control their dockets.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers issued a report in 2018 revealing the popularity and widespread use of plea bargaining. For the same federal crimes, according to this report, post-trial sentences were much more severe than plea-bargained sentences.
The average sentence for fraud in federal courts in 2015, for example, was six years for post-trial sentences compared to 1.9 years for defendants who pled guilty. Sentences were eight times greater for defendants who went to trial for burglary and breaking and entering than those who pled guilty, 12.5 years compared to 1.6 years.
But all defendants who go to trial are not convicted. The NCSC examined 2016-2017 data and found that almost one-third of defendants in felony trials were acquitted or had their sentences dismissed. If 500,000 defendants in California went to trial instead of accepting a guilty plea in 2019, over 160,000 may have been acquitted.
According to that report, the threat of a more severe sentence from a trial compels even an innocent person to forego their constitutional rights to a trial. Penalties for going to trial are just as frequent in state and criminal prosecutions and jury trials are being waived just as often in those jurisdictions.
Until prosecution and sentencing reforms are enacted, defendants will face this difficult choice. Attorneys can help protect defendant’s rights and seek the best option.