April V. Taylor
Many people assume that if a person is convicted of a crime, then they are guilty, but a recent article by The Economist reveals just how often a person is convicted of a crime without there ever haing a trial. A shocking 95 percent of convictions in the United States are actually the result of plea bargains.
Plea bargains are offered by prosecutors in exchange for leniency if a person pleads guilty. Some may feel that this is not a problem because a person would not plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. However, prosecutors are given way too much power to determine a defendants fate. Prosecutors are allowed to offer leniency to “cooperating witnesses” which provides an incentive for someone to implicate a person in a crime that they may not have committed in an attempt to escape punishment. To make matters worse, those who accept plea bargains never get the benefit of going before a judge or jury to weigh the merits of a prosecutor’s case.
To understand how lopsided the system is in terms of the power given to prosecutors, one must consider the fact that defense attorneys are not allowed to offer incentives to witnesses as it is considered bribery. However, prosecutors are allowed to offer witnesses the chance to escape years behind bars in exchange for their testimony. This is a major problem, especially when studies have determined that nearly half of all cases that involve wrongful conviction also involve false testimony from informants who usually received a lighter sentence in exchange for their testimony.
Plea bargains are actually banned in many countries, but America continues to use them. What also makes the use of plea bargains something that is not totally benign is the use of mandatory sentencing. Mandatory sentencing forces many defendants to face harsh amounts of time in prison for non-violent crimes. For many of them, plea bargains can seem like the only way to be sure they will not wind up spending decades behind bars for victimless crimes. There are many aspects of America’s criminal justice system that do not yield fair, equal and unbiased justice, and plea bargains are just one component.