In courtrooms across the country every day, prosecutors and defense attorneys lay out their cases before a judge or jury, doing their best to convince them that the defendant—the person standing trial—is innocent or guilty.
But, in fact, the majority of criminal cases never go to trial. Defendants may appear in court for status hearings or other meetings, but beyond that, they don’t spend days or weeks waiting to learn how a jury or judge rules on their fate. Instead, many cases are resolved with much less pomp and circumstance (and, often, behind closed doors) with a plea deal, also known as a plea bargain. These agreements occur when a defendant pleads guilty to the original or lesser charges, often in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Shi Yan is an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice in Phoenix who researches plea deals, sentencing and sanctions and other related criminal justice topics. Yan spoke with A&E True Crime about these common legal arrangements—how they work, who takes them and why they’ve become such an integral part of the county’s criminal justice proceedings.
What is a plea bargain, exactly?
A plea bargain is the process where the prosecutor and the defense, usually represented by the defense attorney, negotiate over a case’s outcome after a charge is filed against the defendant.
If both parties can agree on a final charge and a sentence, then the defendant would waive the right to a trial and formally acknowledge guilt, known as ‘pleading guilty.’ If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the case would proceed to trial. Sometimes the defendant can directly plead guilty without negotiation, particularly when the crime is not serious and the sentence is not harsh.
Although relatively infrequent, it is also possible for the prosecutor not to offer a plea deal and just bring the case to trial.
How do plea deals work? How are they negotiated or decided upon?
After the prosecutor files a charge or a set of charges, a very common practice is to offer some kind of incentive—a less serious charge, a less harsh recommended sentence, a smaller number of charges or a combination of them—for the defendant to plead guilty.
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There is significant variation in the negotiation process, depending on the location and the type and level of crime. Many factors can affect the plea deal, such as the strength of evidence, the presence or absence of aggravating case factors, the defendant’s criminal record and the likely sentence if the case reaches trial. Some prosecutor’s offices have centralized guidelines regarding what to offer—standard offers—while others leave it to the discretion of individual prosecutors.
In some cases, the prosecutor and the defense attorney, especially when it’s a public defender, have a longstanding work relationship and know what to expect from each other, which tends to expedite the negotiation process. In other cases, there can be a lengthier back-and-forth between the parties.
Are there certain types of cases in which plea deals are more or less common? Are there specific scenarios where they’re considered more or less appropriate?
Plea bargaining is prevalent in almost all types of cases and more than 95 percent of criminal convictions today are the result of a guilty plea rather than a trial verdict. One of the biggest general norms today is to use it whenever possible, because it benefits both parties in most cases. The prosecution side saves the monetary and human labor costs of trial, while the defense gets a reduced punishment.
A major exception to the norm is when the prosecutor would like to seek a very harsh punishment, such as the death penalty when applicable or a life sentence without parole, or for crimes they see as highly concerning or disturbing. Examples include firearm cases or serious drug cases, both of which we have seen individual prosecutor’s offices refuse to offer any plea deals at times. When the defense sees a problem with the evidence or considers the plea offer not lenient enough, they may decline the plea and opt for a trial instead.
Who typically takes a plea deal? And why?
The most common reason for a defendant to plead guilty is when the prosecutor has a strong case—there is strong evidence suggesting their guilt. When a conviction at trial appears inevitable, most defendants will plead guilty to avoid a harsher sentence.
A less common reason is when the stake of a trial is too high, usually when the likely sentence is severe, like death, life imprisonment or very long prison terms. Sometimes the defendant would make an Alford plea, named after the U.S. Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford, where they claim innocent but plead guilty to simply avoid a trial and its consequences.
Studies have also found that when the defendant is detained in jail, as opposed to awaiting the trial outside of the jail, the chance of accepting a plea deal increases—especially when they can get out of jail by pleading guilty, such as when they receive probation or a community service sentence.
Why do you study plea deals?
I study pleas because of how common, yet important, they are. In the case Lafler v. Cooper, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that we now have ‘a system of pleas.’ Plea bargaining is the actual way today’s criminal courts work, and both the benefits and the problems are more reflective of the court system than trials.
At the same time, the outcome of plea-bargaining matters. This process often determines years, and sometimes a lifetime, of the defendant’s freedom—and even in the least serious cases, thousands of dollars in fines and fees.
When the system functions, it affects the lives of millions of individuals. When it malfunctions, such as when an innocent defendant pleads guilty, it affects confidence in the court system. That is why the process deserves attention and research.
What do you wish more people understood about plea bargains?
First, plea deals are extremely common, and trials are rare today. Trials—jury selection, cross-examination, opening statements and closing arguments—still happen. But it is much more likely for a conversation to occur between the prosecutor and the defense attorney than for a jury to deliberate and decide the outcome of a case.
Second, it is possible for innocent defendants to plead guilty. Occasionally, prosecutors can be overly reliant on certain types of evidence, especially the defendant’s confession and witness testimony, and let cases pass through when the evidence is questionable. Some defendants would go to trial when they are innocent [and many still get convicted], while others would strategically take a plea deal to avoid a harsher sentence if they were to get convicted at trial.
To date, the National Registry of Exonerations has identified nearly 600 individuals who pled guilty to a crime they did not commit.
In your recent research, what did you learn about plea behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We conducted an experiment using a platform developed by a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell during the summer of 2020. In the simulation, research participants acted as defendants who were detained in jail, but would get out of jail immediately if they pled guilty.
We found that when research participants were provided with information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, they were more likely to plead guilty than those who did not receive COVID information. The finding was present for both guilty and innocent participants, who were randomly assigned.
Studies before the pandemic have already shown that the prospect of getting out of jail is a major incentive for detained defendants to plead guilty. The pandemic made jails even less desirable due to the concentrated nature and the insufficiency of medical access—which made plea deals more attractive for even innocent defendants. The pandemic did appear to make the false plea problem worse, but the problem had already existed before the pandemic.
What do we know about innocent defendants and plea deals? What issues exist around innocent defendants pleading guilty, and why?
Wrongful convictions—where innocent people end up being convicted—are an important, yet emerging, area in the study of courts. The recent advances in technology, such as DNA analysis, have helped to confirm the innocence of many individuals. However, wrongful pleas are more difficult to study than wrongful trial verdicts because there are fewer case details available, especially related to evidence. Plus, compared with possible steps after a trial, there are generally fewer legal remedies once a defendant pleads guilty. It is difficult for defendants to appeal after they plead guilty, and that makes the whole investigation and negotiation process less likely to be subject to further reviews.