Almost all of the criminal cases in Florida and around the country are resolved by plea bargains rather than trials, which is something that is causing legal observers a great deal of concern. A task force established by the American Bar Association made up of defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and academics recently released a report about plea bargains in the United States, and it makes for grim reading. According to the ABA task force, plea bargains conceal police and prosecutorial misconduct, are disproportionately harsh on minority defendants and put innocent people behind bars.
The trial penalty
Data from the Innocence Project reveals that innocent defendants often plead guilty to avoid what prosecutors call the trial penalty. The term refers to the seven to nine year average that is added to the sentences of defendants who are found guilty by a jury. Another tactic prosecutors use to coerce defendants into accepting plea agreements is called stacking. This is done by filing additional charges that are then dropped to make a plea deal seem more appealing.
The ABA task force discovered that most defendants who agree to plea offers do so before their cases enter the discovery phase. This means that they plead guilty before they or their criminal defense attorneys have had a chance to scrutinize evidence like witness statements. One of the 14 recommendations made by the ABA task force is a call for defendants to be given access to this material before they plead guilty.
Fairness not efficiency
Prosecutors like plea agreements because they save time and guarantee a successful outcome, but these benefits appear to come at a terrible price. The goal of the criminal justice system should be fairness and not efficiency, which is why the recommendations made by the ABA task force should be heeded.