If you face criminal charges in Tennessee, you likely know that a plea bargain is one of your options. Depending on your situation and the facts of your case, a plea bargain may be advantageous. On the other hand, plea bargains contain inherent disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest is that, despite the fact that a jury trial always constitutes a risk, you give up your constitutional right to a trial by a jury of your peers when you accept a plea bargain. In addition, you must plead guilty to a crime in open court. This voluntary guilty plea makes it very difficult for you to prevail in any kind of appeal.
Today, as reported by The Atlantic, many legal scholars question the plea bargaining system and call for reforms if not downright prohibition. Some suggest far more oversight to the plea bargaining process than currently exists. Others take a morality approach, i.e., that the U.S. criminal justice system should be about justice, not merely expediency.
Plea bargain problems
It may surprise you to learn that plea bargains have no standards by which to follow and no rules but one. The prosecutor cannot use an illegal threat in order to obtain a plea from you. Other than that, what (s)he offers and what you accept are simply a matter of negotiation. No one oversees this negotiation and the vast majority of plea bargains never reach written form. Therefore, no written record exists of who offered what based on which considerations, including the strength of the evidence or lack thereof.
Prosecutors consequently have enormous power when it comes to plea bargains. Obviously, they want to advance their cases with as little trial time as possible. Sadly, many public defenders concur, given their own sometimes overwhelming caseloads. This leaves low-income defendants in a real bind since they cannot afford to hire a private attorney and incur attorney’s fees and the other expenses of a potentially lengthy trial. In addition, they may not even be able to raise bail, meaning they sit in jail until their case is disposed of, one way or another.
Reform advocates argue that a national set of standards should be set for plea bargains so that one jurisdiction cannot offer “better” plea bargains than another. They also call for written plea bargains, overseen by a judge, and a mandatory sharing of evidence between the two sides prior to execution of the ultimate agreement.
Unfortunately, your best strategy at present when faced with a plea bargain is to thoroughly discuss its pros and cons with your attorney, including its possible consequences. This is educational information only and not intended to provide legal advice.