The Benefits of Plea Bargaining
Yesterday, Cleveland.com published an interesting article that deals with the practice of plea bargaining. Plea bargaining is a process that often serves the interest of the state as well as defendants. Plea bargaining allows prosecutors to try less cases and helps defendants save money by not fighting the charge at trial. Additionally, defendants often avoid being convicted of a harsher crime, which could get them a longer sentence.
Judge Michael Donnelly is fighting against how plea bargaining works in practice, because often the charge a defendant may plea to does not accurately reflect the crime he is alleged to have committed. Judge Donnelly believes this is dishonest and does not serve the public interest. While Judge Donnelly’s argument makes sense in theory, I think the current system better serves the public interest.
Prosecutors are willing to plea bargain because it clears cases off their docket, ultimately saving the state (and taxpayers) money by not having to prosecute so many cases. When a plea is offered a prosecutor is basically saying that getting a guaranteed conviction for a lesser crime and saving the tax payers money in the process is better than spending the money to go to trial and not have a guaranteed conviction. Both the prosecutor and the judge will often take the actual offense into consideration when sentencing for the lesser crime. For example, a first time OVI/DUI conviction has a mandatory 3 day jail sentence (though you can do a Diversion program in place of this), while a reckless operation conviction does not. An OVI/DUI might be plead to reckless operation, but the judge will often still include 3 days in jail (with the Diversion program option) in his sentence.
In addition to saving the state money and getting the state guaranteed convictions, there are benefits to defendants as well. The first benefit is obvious in that defendants taking a plea might be able to get rid of a higher charge that would look worse on their record and have harsher maximum penalties. Another major benefit is that by taking a plea bargain a defendant is not going to have to pay an attorney to represent him at trial. Getting a case settled at pre-trial can often keep defendants from having to pay an arm and a leg for their legal service. Going to trial costs big money as it requires a lot of hours of the attorney’s time. Getting a plea deal a defendant is happy with ultimately can be a big benefit to his pocket book as well as his criminal record.
So though at some level I understand Judge Donnelly’s concern about the dishonest of plea bargaining, I think the benefits of plea bargaining far outweigh the cost at all ends. It saves defendants money, saves the government money and saves taxpayers money. It also allows for flexibility for prosecutors in determining where they should focus their resources, but at the same time allows them to get guaranteed convictions, instead of losing cases at trial. In short, plea bargaining is a great tool for prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants. Limiting the flexibility of how it can be used would not benefit the criminal justice system.