The Escalating Penalty for Asserting Your Right to a Trial


The New York Times highlights the impact of mandatory minimum sentences on plea bargains during the last few decades. While defendants have always risked a more severe punishment by pleading not guilty (hence the basis for plea bargains), the penalty for insisting on a trial has increased dramatically as legislators have ratcheted up sentences since the 1980s. The Times cites an assault case in which a Florida man rejected a plea bargain that included a two-year sentence and now, after prosecutors ramped up the charges, faces life in prison if he is convicted. In another Florida assault case, a man who claimed to have acted in defense of his family turned down a deal that involved five years of probation, only to receive a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence after he was convicted. Laws requiring such sentences effectively give prosecutors, rather than judges, the power to determine a defendant's punishment by deciding what charges to bring. Largely as a result of this shift in power, the Times says, the percentage of cases resolved through plea bargains has increased substantially:

The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., found that the percentage of felonies taken to trial in nine states with available data fell to 2.3 percent in 2009, from 8 percent in 1976….

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, after studying partial data on state-court felony prosecutions nationwide, found that from 1986 to 2006 the ratio of pleas to trials nearly doubled.

The shift has been clearer in federal district courts. After tougher sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980s, the percentage of criminal cases taken to trial fell to less than 3 percent last year, from almost 15 percent, according to data from the State University at Albany's Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. The explosion of immigration prosecutions, where trials are rare, skews the numbers, but the trend is evident even when those cases are not included.

Nearly nine of every 10 cases ended in pleas last year.

As part of our July package on "Criminal Injustice," Timothy Lynch explained the pernicious impact of plea bargaining, noting that the popular understanding of American justice "is wildly off the mark" because only a small percentage of cases actually go to trial. In the same issue, Julie Stewart reviewed recent progress toward sentencing reform.

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  1. Trials cost money, plea bargians save money. Rights? Justice? Those ideas come with a price tag my friends, are you willing to pay it?

    1. Exactly. For most people, the increasing number of plea bargains is a feature. All the guilty people are being rapidly processed and punished and the system isn’t being slowed down.

  2. It’s regrettable that this kind of thing happens but if only they had listened to the representatives of government (who really only want the best for you and society as a whole) they could have greatly reduced the periods of their incarceration. They have no one to blame but themselves.

    1. Wow.

      Handle-jacked before he even posts on the thread.

      The Reason-griefers have nothing but time on their hands, it seems.

    2. F-, even you could not believe that trolling.

      1. Really, it sounds more like something one of our tighty-righty types would say.

      2. WHo the Fuck are you?

  3. This was reported in the New York Times, which supports Keynes and universal health insurance coverage. Ergo, it must be false.

  4. Pretty great racket they have going.

    — Define more and more activities as criminal.

    — Respond to a bogged down criminal justice system by making punishments harsher (and no politicians wants to be seen as being soft on crime, so such measures pass far more often than not.)

    — Harsher penalties lead more people to accept plea bargains, thus convicting more and more people without the tedium and risk of a trial by a jury of one’s peers.

    — The ever-rising crime rate necessitates additional funding and training for the Criminal Justice Industrial Complex.

    1. “”and no politicians wants to be seen as being soft on crime,””

      And we know why that is.

      You get the government you deserve.

      Of course, not you or I, but everyone else. 😉

  5. The Wollard case is absolutely terrible. You can read more about it at FAMM’s website:…..orida.aspx

    1. Now see, I would’ve shot to kill, and then destroyed the body, so nobody would’ve been the wiser.

  6. I read this article this morning; great piece.

    I was wondering something as I was reading that I’m hoping one of our legal beagles could answer.

    Can a defense attourney use the plea offering as evidence or in his opening/closing remarks?

    How about in an sentencing appeal?

    Personally, I think that you should not be sentenced for a day longer than any plea offering. It would clog the shit out of the system, but they’ve been allowed to get away with passing infinite laws for far too long.

    1. Also, as in the case that Greg Newburn above cites; what if the judge just said fuck it and suspended the sentence or gave him time served?

      1. The state would appeal the sentence and it would get overturned on appeal. There’s no way around the mandatory minimums. (Except where the statute provides for exceptions [youthful offenders and substantial assistance].)

    2. Can a defense attourney use the plea offering as evidence or in his opening/closing remarks?

      I believe not. I know the prosecutor cannot use plea negotiations at trial.

      1. Maybe, but the prosecutor faces some restrictions that the defense attorney does not.

        Besides, if the guy was called to testify at sentencing, I don’t know how exactly how they could stop him from telling the jury about the conditions of the plea bargain offered to him and arguing that prosecutor isn’t as concerned about his dangerousness as he claims to them. I mean, once he says it, it’s said.

  7. I read this, and now my stomach hurts. Rats.

  8. May sound crazy, but what about a system that decides potential punishment first.

    IF you plead guilty OR are found guilty, this is the sentence you’ll get. Your plea?

  9. seful information, many thanks to the author. It is puzzling to me now, but in general, the usefulness and importance is overwhelming. much thanks again and good luck! welcome to visit us ,if you are interested in winter sports .jakke salg

  10. If a prosecutor offers a specific charge in a plea bargain, this should be registered in the public record and should be the only charge(s) allowed in a trial. In other words, don’t allow prosecutors to play these bullshit games with criminal charges.

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