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Plea Bargaining Essay Sample

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Plea Bargaining Essay Sample

            For all intents and purposes, plea bargaining is a contract between government (represented by a public prosecutor) and a defendant in a criminal case. Its primary purpose is to resolve a criminal case before it reaches the court and in the process, reduce the case load of the courts. Since plea bargaining is supposed to be applicable only in cases where the guilt of the defendant is already a foregone conclusion, the practice also allows public prosecutors to resolve such cases with dispatch and devote their time to more important cases. Although advocates of the practice argue that the end result of plea bargaining is a substantial savings for government, a closer look at its actual implementation tends to support the claim of opponents that aside from being immoral, the practice also defeats the accepted functions of the criminal justice system of the country (Macionis, 2006).

There are two types of plea bargaining agreements. The first type is called a “charge bargain.” Under this category, the prosecutor usually convinces a defendant who is charged with several offenses to plead guilty to only one or two of the charges, or a defendant who is charged with a major crime to plead guilty to a lesser offense. In both instances, the defendant gets away with a lesser sentence than what he or she could be getting if the case goes to trial and he or she is found guilty as charged. A good example is when a person who has no driver’s license was arrested while driving under the influence of alcohol. Under a charge bargain, the prosecutor would offer to bring only a charge of driving while drunk instead of the two charges of drunk driving and driving without a license just to resolve the case immediately. Another example is when a defendant who has been charged with “burglary” would instead be charged with “attempted burglary.” Since the latter is a lesser felony, the defendant would be getting a lighter sentence simply by pleading guilty (Larson, 2000).

The second type of plea bargaining agreement is called a ‘sentence bargain.” Under the usual terms of this type of plea bargain, the prosecutor first tells the defendant what his or her sentence would be if found guilty as charged. Then the prosecutor would assure the defendant that if he or she pleads guilty to the charge, the guilty plea would be cited as a mitigating circumstance in asking the court to hand down a lighter sentence. What differentiates a sentence bargain from a charge bargain is the fact that under this second type of plea bargain, the charge is not downgraded. However, a sentence bargain is usually only resorted to under certain circumstances. First, the agreement should have the approval of the presiding judge. If the judge disapproves, then the prosecutor could not bring it off. Second, the prosecutor usually resorts to this type of plea bargain when he or she is not inclined to charge the defendant with a lesser crime for some reasons. Usually, the reason is because the members of the media could become overly critical when the charge is downgraded because the case involves prominent citizens. Therefore, to evade the ire of the media, the only recourse left to the prosecutor is to offer a sentence bargain. In doing so, the prosecutor satisfies the media by getting a conviction for the most serious chargeable offense while at the same time securing a guilty plea and resolving the case without a trial (Larson, 2000).

If one takes a closer look at the mechanics of the two types of plea bargaining agreements, the practice’s vulnerability to abuse immediately becomes evident. While in theory plea bargains should only be applied to cases where the guilt of the defendants is already beyond doubt, statistics appear to support the claim that this requirement is usually set aside by prosecutors in cases involving poor defendants. Instead, what usually happens is that poor defendants are being forced into a corner and made to understand that if they do not plead guilty, the trial would find them guilty, anyway, and that their only choice is to plead guilty – or else, be meted with a harsher punishment. Now, these poor defendants could not afford to hire their own lawyers who would defend them vigorously and wholeheartedly. They are being defended by overworked, poorly-paid public defenders who have been observed to just going through the motions of defending their court-appointed clients and who would readily agree to a plea bargain once one is offered their clients just to wrap up the case and attend to the next one. Thus faced without adequate legal advice and support, poor defendants are very vulnerable to the offer of a plea bargain. Their most common reason is that they believe that they would be convicted anyway because of the perfunctory defense being put up by court-appointed lawyers (Macionis, 2006).

As a matter fact, there are indications that plea bargaining has ceased to become just a tool for unclogging the case loads of the courts. In fact, it has become so prevalent that Robert Scott and Bill Stuntz were compelled to observe that it is no longer an “adjunct to the criminal justice system” but has already become “the criminal justice system” in the country (as cited in Mnookin, 2005). Statistics support their view. In 2002, for instance, out of a total of 75,573 criminal cases which were resolved, only 3,463 – or less than five percent – actually reached the courts. More than 95 percent (72,110 cases) were closed after defendants entered guilty pleas. It is widely believed that majority of those who have chosen to plead guilty did so under plea bargaining agreements. This discovery forced observers to pronounce that “Plea bargains have become the norm and the trial an anomaly” (Mnookin, 2005).

            Moreover, opponents of the practice argue that even if plea bargaining actually reduces the case loads of the country’s criminal courts it actually weakens the judicial process because of two reasons. First, plea bargaining denies defendants of their right under the law to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Under the system, the defense lawyers are supposed to defend their clients diligently and vigorously, not to help in resolving cases by assisting their clients in consummating plea bargaining agreements as in the case of court-appointed lawyers and their poor defendants. Second, the practice actually weakens the adversarial aspect of the judicial process in the country since convictions are being obtained through agreements, not by allowing the two sides to argue the facts of the cases and the applicable laws in front of a judge or a jury (Macionis, 2006).


Larson, A. (2000). How Does “Plea Bargaining” Work? ExpertLaw. Retrieved December

7, 2008 from http://www.expertlaw.com/library/criminal/plea_bargains.html

Macionis, J.J. (2006). Society: The Basics (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice


Mnookin, J.L. (2005). Plea Bargaining’s Triumph: A History of Plea Bargaining in America.

            Stanford Law Review, Vol. 57. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from


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