Supreme Court Must Strike Down Plea Bargaining


A May 2012 study titled: The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma demonstrates that when an innocent person is at risk of facing a severe punishment if they go to trial, they are more likely to accept the plea bargain and eliminate that risk. Given these findings, it is time to reconsider plea bargaining.    

The American justice system has been almost entirely engulfed by plea bargains, leaving only a small remainder of cases to ever reach a trial. According to the New York Times, “a vast majority of criminal cases – 97 percent of federal cases, 94 percent of state cases – are resolved by guilty pleas.”

In a recent Supreme Court decision, Lafler v. Cooper, Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent describes plea bargaining thus: “In the United States, we have plea bargaining a-plenty, but until today it has been regarded as a necessary evil. It presents grave risks of prosecutorial overcharging that effectively compels an innocent defendant to avoid massive risk by pleading guilty to a lesser offense; and for guilty defendants it often -- perhaps usually-- results in a sentence well below what the law prescribes for the actual crime. But even so, we accept plea bargaining because many believe that without it our long and expensive process of criminal trial could not sustain the burden imposed on it, and our system of criminal justice would grind to a halt.”  

Plea bargaining can be thought of as a practical way to conserve court resources, and may be a necessary evil when guilty defendants get lighter sentences as a result of their bargains.  However, a plea bargain is unconstitutional when an innocent person is coerced into it.   How do we determine how many defendants who have entered pleas were actually guilty? How do we find out how many innocent defendants have entered a plea in order to avoid a significantly harsher sentence?

The aforementioned study: attempted to answer the question of how many innocent people would admit guilt and accept lesser consequences rather than face a trial and the risks of more severe penalties. In the study, college students were asked to participate in what they thought was a “psychological inquiry into individual versus group problem solving performance.” During the study, the participants were asked to complete the first portion of a test as a group; in the second portion, they were to answer the questions individually. To set up the guilt/innocence scenario, during the second portion of the test, a research assistant posing as a study participant, and an actual study participant would be placed in a room together to take the portion of the test to be completed individually. During the test, for half of the study participants, the research assistant would ask the study participant what answers he/she got, or ask for help in answering the questions. All but two of the study participants who were asked for help by the research assistant answered the questions and helped the research assistant. The other half of the study participants were not asked questions by the research assistant, completed the test individually and thus, did not “cheat”.  

After a short time to review the test answers, the distributor of the test came back and informed the students that they had been accused of cheating based on the oddly similar answers that they submitted.  The research assistant offered each study participant a deal where they would admit that they cheated and agree to give up the compensation promised to them for their participation in the study. If they did not take the “deal,” the matter would be presented to the Academic Review Board (“ARB”), (which was described as a sort of trial ) and if they were found guilty, their cheating would be reported to their academic advisor, they would lose their compensation for the study, and they have to take a mandatory ethics class. They were told that 80-90% of the time, the ARB found that the student was “guilty.”

The study found that the great majority, 88%, of the guilty participants, that is, the participants who had helped the research assistant with his test, agreed to the deal. What was startling was that 56.4% of the students wrongfully accused of cheating chose to plead guilty.

Although many would argue that plea bargains are necessary to maintain efficiency and cost effectiveness in the justice system, the justice system is founded on the principles of equality and fairness. When the innocent confess to crimes that they have not committed and the guilty receive less severe punishments, justice is not administered fairly, and the extensive use of plea bargains need to be reconsidered.