An Essay on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Plea Bargaining
by Debbie Shipman (Apr 2010)


         Regular viewers of nighttime television can expect two things in any police drama: a Miranda warning and an offer to plea bargain. “You have the right to remain silent….” near the beginning of the show and “in exchange for telling us this, we’re only going to charge you with that” toward the conclusion. In real life, as in television, these two elements are institutionalized into the American justice system, but only one of them, the Miranda warning, can be said to truly serve justice. Plea agreements are overused and should be allowed only in exceptional circumstances.

         Advocates of plea-bargaining argue the practice helps catch other, more dangerous criminals and relieves overburdened court systems, while opponents say criminals receive unduly lenient sentences under bargain agreements. While there is validity to both of these arguments, my concern is that plea agreements encourage shoddy work by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

         Although we may say that a suspect is accused of a certain crime, say theft or drug possession, the list of charges is usually much longer. Like throwing a fistful of mud on the wall in hopes that something sticks, a district attorney (DA) files as many charges as possible. A person found in illegal possession of prescription drugs during a traffic stop could have a long list of charges brought against him including theft, intent to distribute, driving under the influence, plus have his car and cash seized upon arrest.  Consider, if the truth is that the suspect does illegally possess prescription drugs, but he hadn’t ingested any yet (so is not under the influence), purchased rather than stole them, had no intention of selling or distributing them, and the money was from his just-cashed paycheck, none of these facts is relevant. Rather than make the DA prove his or her case, the defense attorney, having made a deal over a cup of coffee with the DA, convinces the defendant that he is getting off easy with a guilty plea in exchange for a few lesser charges being dropped. The defendant, who has already paid his lawyer a few thousand dollars, lost his vehicle, paycheck, and now has a reputation as a thief, is afraid that things can only get worse and cuts a deal that still may cost even more money and jail time.

         In the above scenario, which repeats itself over and over disproportionately among people of modest means, law enforcement agencies add to their coffers with seized property and cash and defense attorneys bring in thousands of dollars for a maximum of two or three hours of actual time spent on a case.  The benefit to society is questionable and probably negated when you consider that our national pride is based on a justice system built on the tenets that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, the burden of proof must rest on the accuser, and the punishment should fit the crime.

         It is easy to say to the defendant “shame on you” and never examine whether justice was truly served, but there is something fundamentally wrong with a system in which guilt or innocence is overlooked in favor of convenience and in which people routinely plead guilty to crimes they did not commit because they lack the means to do otherwise. Law enforcement should have reasonable evidence before charging a suspect and defense attorneys should do at least the minimum job that their clients pay them for: defend against wrongful charges; for either party to do less is truly a miscarriage of justice and creates a system that any of us could fall victim to.


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