Justice without Trial: The Problems with Plea Bargaining

To introduce this topic, I want to share a personal story about what happened in June of 2015. Until now, only close friends and family have known about the tragedy that struck our family over two years ago. For two years two members of our family as well as their mother and our immediate family have been recovering and dealing with the consequences of one man’s actions. These actions led to a sentence of 7 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections even as the maximum sentence for all 8 of the defendant’s felony convictions carried a sentence of nearly 60 years. Although my family held hands, cried, and thanked God that the defendant was given the maximum sentence on all counts in accordance with the plea bargain (he was asking for probation and time served, which was close to 60 days), the use of these deals without the consultation of the state statute or the judge (the sentencing party in all non-death penalty criminal cases except in the case of plea bargains) is not justice and some argue it may not even be constitutional.

Instead of going through all the details, I wish to share the victim impact statement made on behalf of our family during the defendant’s sentencing hearing before continuing on to the main article. All names have been removed. Also, some parts of the statement are censored or removed for privacy. If you are reading and commenting on this article and do know our story, please refrain from posting names, relationships to the family, etc. This is a public forum and although we wish to bring attention to the problems with Alford Pleas and plea bargaining in general, we do not wish to bring attention to our family, the children, or anyone involved. Thank you for your understanding. 

~~~

Good afternoon your honor, my name is …………, the victim’s mother. I am addressing the court today to convey the hardships, physical and mental, that have affected my children and our family as a direct result of the physical and mental abuse they suffered at the hands of the defendant.

I first met the defendant in high school and had a long-standing friendship with him for the last ten years. When we decided to date in the summer of 2015, I felt he was a good fit for our family but I was horribly wrong. My once sweet and well-mannered children now struggle with anger control issues, PTSD which has been diagnosed by my son’s counselor, night terrors, and flashbacks. On several occasions my son has woken at night yelling, “please don’t hurt me”, and “please don’t kill me” in which he names the defendant every time. On more than one occasion, I have had to ask for help from my sister and her boyfriend to come to our house and try to stop his flashbacks in which he enters a trance-like state, bangs his head against the wall, screams, apologizes, and begs for the defendant not to hurt him. This is a prime example of the lasting mental impact of the vicious attacks my son has suffered at the hands of the defendant. As a mother, this is one of the hardest things for my family and I because it gives us a glimpse of what happened when he was left alone with the defendant. PTSD is just one of the mental conditions he will have for the rest of his life. Because of this trauma, my son has been in counseling once a week for 2 years and currently has to take medication daily to regulate his mood.

As far as my son’s physical injuries, the bruises were so deep that the investigators sent him to the hospital to make sure his liver and kidneys were functioning properly as a result of the massive trauma to his body. The pain and suffering my son and daughter have both endured is something no child should ever have to go through, let alone a four and five-year-old.

As for my daughter recall the defendant chasing her and my son around the house with a knife and that she saw the defendant held a knife over my son while screaming, “I will kill you”, is a horrific reality that she has to live with and relive, every day.

The defendant is a danger to himself and others. I believe he deserves a far heavier sentence than the mere 7 years he has been offered. According to the Missouri statute for the crimes the defendant is now convicted of, he would have been facing close to 60 years in prison if convicted to the full extent of the law. As it stands, this violent offender will receive a sentence 8 times shorter than what Missouri law suggests.

The defendant knew what he was doing because he continuously made excuses for his behavior and instructed the kids to keep quiet. I wish every day that I would have discovered and stopped this abuse far sooner than I did. If the defendant is allowed to walk out of prison in 7 years, I believe he will do this to someone else’s children. By pleading no contest, the defendant has taken no responsibility for his actions and shows no remorse for what he did to my children. He has altered my children’s lives in the worst way. He needs to be stopped.

The abuse suffered by my children will always be a part of their lives. However, these events have brought our family together and we are all doing everything we can to help my son and daughter recover from this. My children will be okay, but if the defendant is allowed to walk out of that prison in a mere 7 years, other children may not be as lucky. He is dangerous, and he needs to take responsibility for what he’s done. 7 years is not enough time to pay for the horrific things he has done to these innocent children.

I want to thank the court for their time and all you do to keep our communities safe. Thank you.

~~~

Plea Bargaining has been used in the criminal justice system for centuries and is a “defining, if not the defining, feature of the criminal justice system” (Devers, 2011). On average, defendants who take plea bargains serve a tremendously lower sentence than those who are convicted through the trial process (Scott, Strutz, 1992). I found this to be particularly true in the case that affected my family. Not only has this abuse caused the victim’s lifelong trauma and afflictions such as PTSD, but it has forever changed the way they view men and the criminal justice system alike. Although plea bargains save the government money, docket time, and ensure a conviction, the use of plea bargains abandon precedent in like cases and demean the power given to elected judges by allowing prosecuting attorneys to sentence violent criminals. Because of the large disparity between fair sentences and plea bargains, reform of the way in which plea bargains are suggested and carried out has been at the forefront of the plea bargain debate. Some suggest that there be mediators for these types of deals outside of the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney. Other reforms such as expanding the court systems so judges have more time to review cases before agreeing to plea bargain sentences, and setting mandatory minimums for plea bargains similar to those set by precedent, has been suggested (Bibas, 2004). Further, the use of the Alford Plea which r19990212mannerwallows defendants accused of crimes to plead no contest and waive their right to trial but admits no guilt in the crime of which they are accused is not sufficient recognition of guilt to even punish an offender in comparison to a guilty verdict handed down by a jury. It is for these reasons that although plea bargaining is necessary and should be used within the United States federal and state court systems, reforms and restrictions should be applied to ensure a fair and equal punishment which better align with set precedents for the crimes in which defendants plead guilty to.

I first encountered the use of plea bargains in the case in which the defendant was offered an initial deal from the prosecutor. However, upon first negotiations between the defendant and the prosecuting attorney a plea bargain was offered for twelve years in prison with no probation after the defendant’s release. At first, the plea deal was turned down and everyone involved prepared for trial, including the children who would need to testify for the prosecution. As the trial date neared, there was a change of plea on behalf of the defendant and the day before the trial, the defendant entered an Alford plea of no contest. Naturally, my family and I were ecstatic that the children nor anyone involved would need to testify. However, upon talking with the prosecutor, we realized that the prosecution’s plea bargain was not what we were hoping for. Without a plea bargain, the defendant was facing fifty-six years behind bars in exchange for eight class C felony charges. It was brought to attention that because the defendant pled guilty by means of Alford plea, the maximum sentence that would be handed down was seven years in prison. In addition, all of the felony charges were reduced which allowed for the plea deal to proceed.

This is a classic example of the kinds of plea bargains handed down to violent offenders to aid the prosecution in getting a conviction. While plea bargains are used to help eliminate cases in court dockets and save state or federal money, it also allows for prosecutors to dramatically lower the defendant’s sentence; a power usually exhibited by the judge and jury (Scott, Strutz, 1992). In this case, the sentence at maximum will be eight times shorter than that of the maximum sentence the defendant may have gotten if the case went to trial and a guilty verdict was returned. In some ways, the negotiation of the plea bargain has its advantages such as diminishing the chance that the children would have any kind of PTSD episodes in the courtroom which would prevent them from testifying, as well as spared our family from having to sit through the details of the abuse again however, the sentence offered to the defendant even in the first offer, was not sufficient or equal to the crime committed. Further, in using the Alford plea, the defendant recognized that the prosecution had enough evidence against him for a jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but still proclaimed his innocence in the crime and admitted no guilt. This seems to be the biggest impasse even over the limited prison sentence as the defendant is not held completely responsible for his actions. Not only did the plea bargain afford the defendant fifty years of freedom that he likely would not have had otherwise, but it allowed him to deny involvement and responsibility in the events which he is convicted of committing. This kind of plea leaves little closure for the victim’s family and gives all the advantage to the defendants who, although having to serve prison time, get off with a much lighter punishment in relation to what would have been handed down at trial. In addition, the confirmation that a jury of his peers has agreed beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty of the crime of which he is convicted would have added closure and justification to the emotions of the victims. In the case of my niece and nephew, their abuser could be released from prison in less than five years for good behavior, a whole fifty-one years earlier than my family was hoping.

The debate on whether or not plea bargains are fair, both for the victims and in relation to fair sentencing is a common concern among victim families that face these kinds of dilemmas in the courtroom (Devers, 2011). According to the L.A. Times, “fewer than 3% of cases filed in 2013 headed to trial” (Martelle, 2014). This is largely due to plea bargaining which concludes ninety-five percent of all federal and state cases, especially in relation to violent crime offenders (Devers, 2011). Due to the prevalence of plea bargains in place of trials, many violent offenders serve less prison time. This allows the violent offender the opportunity to be set free after a minimal amount of time is served (almost always a fraction of the sentence parameters established by precedent) (Martelle, 2014). This creates more chances for violent offenders to recidivate and cause harm to other innocent families. In a 2005 study done by the National Institute of Justice, “71.3 percent of violent offenders” committed additional crimes after being released from prison (NIJ, 2014). Giving violent offenders the opportunity to commit more violent crimes not only puts the community at risk but costs the criminal justice system more money in the long run. Further, some scholars argue that the implementation of plea bargains allow the prosecutors too much discretionary power whereas judges are held to strict sentencing standards (Bibas, 2004). This causes a great disparity between plea bargains handed down by prosecutors and sentences handed down by courtroom judges (Devers, 2011). The lack of consistency between sentences which comes from the abandonment of case precedent when offering plea deals undermines judicial power and allows violent criminals to walk free much sooner than precedent would allow.

Not only are there several issues in relation to the difference in sentencing but there are also issues pertaining to the rights of the defendants. It has been argued that the coercive tactics used by prosecutors to persuade defendants to take plea deals in order to ensure a conviction violate the rights of the defendant (Devers, 2011). This based on the assumption that some defendants plead guilty when they are in fact innocent for fear of cartoongetting a longer prison sentence at trial. In the case of the Alford Plea, the defendant is able to plead guilty but retain that they are innocent of the crime they have been charged with. However, the plea admits the fact that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove without a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. This type of plea ensures that the defendant gets a much lighter sentence in exchange for a guilty plea and the surrendering of the defendant’s right to trial (Scott, Strutz, 1992). Some scholars argue that this type of plea not only undermines the criminal justice system by allowing “innocent” offenders to go to prison, but it infringes on the defendant’s rights as some feel that if the defendant is innocent the fear of a longer sentence is a coercive factor that persuades them to waive their rights and serve the sentence negotiated in the plea bargain (Bibas, 2004). This is comparable to police coercion during interrogations that result in a confession, which violates due process law and can result in the evidence not being admissible in the courtroom. In addition, multiple sentences have been overturned in appeals court for rights violation of this kind by both state and federal Supreme Courts (Scott, Strutz, 1992). However, some argue that this type of coercion is used daily within the criminal justice system in the form of plea bargains.

Amidst the conflicting debates regarding victim rights and discretionary power, there have been attempts to better protect defendant’s rights as well as administer a swift and fair sentence which better aligns with the rule of precedent. Some of the suggested reforms for plea bargaining involve: “limiting prosecutorial discretion by creating policy and legislation that calls for firmer guidelines when choosing sanctions for specific crimes” (Bibas, 2004). In addition, both judges and defense attorneys should take part in the bargaining process “so that there is a balance of power among all legal participants” (Bibas, 2004). By involving judges in the plea bargaining process, the rule of precedent would be acknowledged in the sentence offered, addressing the disparity between judge’s sentencing and plea bargains negotiated by prosecutors. Further, the use of a mediator to work with the defendant’s lawyer and the court system to negotiate a plea deal may reduce the aspect of coercion some claim occurs between the prosecutor and the defendant (Devers, 2011). In this way, the plea bargaining system could produce fairer sentences and avoid any infraction on the defendants’ rights.

In conclusion, the use of plea bargains within the criminal justice system is necessary. However, by reforming specific aspects of the process in deciding these bargains, the court system can work to provide fairer sentencing to violent offenders while at the same time, upholding due process law that may otherwise be violated by plea bargains. Further, the integration of judges in plea bargain negotiation allows for a more balanced system in which the prosecutor isn’t allowed to make the final offer. In the case of my niece and nephew, the plea bargain negotiated seems unequal to the crimes committed and my fear is that the defendant will commit more violent crimes against children if he is released from prison. Plea bargain reform could help combat this issue and give more closure to victims and their families.

References

Bibas, S. (2004). The Feeney amendment and the continuing rise of prosecutorial power to plea bargain. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 94:295–309.

Devers, L. (2011). Plea and Charge Bargaining Research Summary. N.p.: Bureau of Justice Assistance. Retrieved from https://www.bja.gov/Publications/PleaBargainingResearchSummary.pdf

Martelle, S. (2014, November 4). The links among incarcerations, plea bargains, and violent neighborhoods. L.A. Times. Retrieved March 27, 2018, from http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-urban-violence-incarcerations-criminal-justice-20141104-story.html

“Recidivism.” National Institute of Justice, United States Department of Justice, 17 June 2014, https://www.nij.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism/Pages/welcome.aspx. Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

Scott, R., & Strutz, W. (1992, June). Plea Bargaining as Contract. The Yale Law Journal101(8), 1909-1968. Retrieved from JSTOR (796952).

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