Criminal Justice

Plea bargaining reform urged by ABA task force in new report

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An increasing number of criminal cases are not going to trial, and the implications have negative consequences for the entire justice system, according to a new report by the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s Plea Bargaining Task Force.

The task force, which included prosecutors, judges, defense attorney and other stakeholders, found that about 98% of convictions are the result of a guilty plea, a practice that they say often coerces innocent people into pleading guilty to crimes that they didn’t commit to avoid jail time.

Among other conclusions, the report determined that, on average, defendants received seven years less when they accept a plea instead of risking a harsher sentence by taking their case to trial—a trade-off commonly referred to as the trial penalty.

“No one should be afraid to go to trial,” says Wade Rolle, a Jacksonville, Florida, lawyer, who specializes in criminal defense but was not a member of the task force. “What the justice system should not be doing is taxing people for exercising their constitutional rights.”

The three-year study also found that Black people are more likely to accept a plea because they’re more likely to be stuck in pretrial detention. And plea deals make it harder to uncover racial bias and police misconduct, according to the report, because trials offer transparency and “critical oversight” of the criminal justice system.

While the report acknowledged that the plea bargaining system has benefits, including efficiency and cost saving, it found that under the current system, the costs outweighed the positive aspects.

“To this end, jurisdictions should establish mechanisms to monitor the plea process from charging decision to disposition, as well as implement an audit process to test the validity and integrity of guilty pleas,” according to the report’s authors.

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