Damned if You Do, Damned If You Don’t:

Mass Incarceration and the Trial Penalty

By Mafatou J. – Criminal Justice Intern

It is established in the Bill of Rights that any person accused of a crime has the right to face a jury of their peers and make their case. Despite this law, more than 90 percent of cases in the criminal justice system are pleaded out, meaning most defendants never receive the chance to exercise their 6th amendment right to a trial by jury. When defendants plead out, they are admitting guilt and avoiding trial in exchange for a lesser sentence and leniency. Plea bargaining has existed for centuries but its legality was solidified by the supreme court in the 1970 case Brady V. United States. Case BacklogThere have been many criticisms of plea bargaining, the most significant has been its elevation of mass incarceration. There is such a massive caseload in the criminal justice system, that plea bargaining was intended to speed up the process. However, the unintended consequence is that prosecutors use plea bargaining to bully and strong-arm defendants.

Prosecutors are expected to win convictions and plea bargaining allows them to save money while achieving that goal. This process turns the focus from the possible guilt and innocence of defendants to receiving higher conviction rates which leads to mass incarceration and unfairly targets indigent defendants. Defendants are threatened with the maximum sentence carried for their alleged offense if they force the prosecution to go to trial. This is also known as the trial penalty and it has made it impossible for defendants to utilize their rights. If defendants that have less money choose to go to trial, they can not afford the best lawyers and resources. They are then assigned public defenders who have such enormous caseloads they are unable to provide special attention and focus to every case. If the defendant loses at trial they will be punished with excessive time yet if the defendant chooses to accept the prosecutor’s deal, they will be admitting guilt and will still be sent to jail. In addition, defendants who know they are innocent will choose to plead guilty because of the fear of what might happen if they are found guilty at trial. This means the actual offender is still not apprehended and nothing was truly achieved.

The current state of plea bargaining makes jail the automatic option. Defendants will be coerced to either accept the deal they are given or go to trial and be punished severely if found guilty. This cycle pushes more people to prisons that are already overcrowded and has negative effects on entire communities. However, when done right, plea bargaining is essential to the criminal justice system and really can speed up the process while gaining rightful convictions. The key to altering the state of plea bargaining is electing and appointing prosecutors that care less about conviction rates and more about their communities, safety, and true justice. The prosecution should focus on due process and making sure the punishment always fits the crime. Jail is not the only option, there are rehabilitation programs for drug addiction, psychiatric treatment, and community service. The prosecution should actually negotiate with defendants, provide them options, and ensure fair tactics are used instead of coercive ones. Mass incarceration is a plague to our country and plea bargaining is lending to the problem while sending innocent people to jail in the process. If prosecutors continue to use plea bargaining to abuse their power, defendants will be left helpless and the prison population will continue to grow exponentially.