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A Brief Look into the Legitimacy of Plea Bargains

Throughout American history, judicial scholars have debated both the philosophical and pragmatic efficacy of plea bargaining in both state and federal criminal proceedings. Often, critics of plea bargaining (a very common practice) contend that it undermines the integrity of the American justice system by allowing prosecutors to make narrow-sighted “deals” in the interest of convenience and efficiency. While in certain respects this assertion holds true, the myriad benefits of plea bargains vastly outweigh the alleged harms.

In a landmark decision back in 1970, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld in Brady v. United States the constitutionality of plea bargaining under the condition that defendants willingly enter and acknowledge the terms of the agreement under no duress or coercion. Certain constructionist legal scholars still contend that the Court’s decision blatantly violates a defendant’s right to trial by jury. However, in reality such a myopic generalization does not hold true for a variety of reasons. First, regardless of circumstance, the defendant in a criminal proceeding holds the inalienable right to demand that his or her case be brought before a jury of peers. In other words, the court cannot deprive the accused of the right to due process under the law and likewise cannot force admission of guilt. This becomes crucial when evaluating the jurisprudence of plea bargaining, as defendants by law must willfully enter into an agreement.

Secondly, in the event that the prosecution and the defense enter into a plea agreement, both parties must by law uphold the terms of the bargain. All agreements are subject to court review and approval, which in essence ensures the delivery of justice in the proceeding. Yet the question remains: Why would anyone enter into a plea agreement in the first place? Similarly, what is the benefit, if any? The answer is simple: insurance and efficiency.

There are three primary types of plea bargains that serve different purposes depending on the nature of the crime. The two most common forms, charge and sentence bargaining, allow a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge or plead guilty to the original indictment for a lighter sentence. The benefits are as follows: First, plea bargaining allows for a more fluid operation of the court system, specifically by lessening the overcrowding created as a result of an excessive number of cases waiting on the docket. Ultimately, lesser caseloads allow prosecutors to effectively carry out judicial duties in more serious criminal proceedings with diligence and efficiency. Secondly, defendants save time and resources by avoiding tedious trial proceedings. Similarly, by establishing and agreeing to the terms of a guilty plea, prosecutors avoid the risks and uncertainties of trial and ultimately ensure that hardcore offenders serve time in the interest of justice and the public good.

In short, plea bargaining serves as an integral component of the American justice system and ought to be upheld.


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