Plea Bargains – No Deal For Anyone?

Plea Bargains – No Deal For Anyone?

Bargain deals. A good deal for someone who is guilty?

A good deal for the state as the agreements avoid an expensive process?

Here are some settlements offered against actual judgments that I have personally heard of. I omit the surnames of those mentioned.

Albert – sexual abuse; he was offered a plea deal reduced to a misdemeanor, no mandatory sex offender treatment, no annual sex offender registration and 4 to 6 months in jail. He refused, saying, “I am not guilty.” After 2 trials (jury deadlocked in first trial-10 not guilty; 2 tied), second jury convicted him and he was sentenced to 7-1/2 to 15 years.

Michael, sexual assault; he was offered a plea deal of 1 year with the stipulation that he complete sex offender treatment. He refused, went to trial and served 2 consecutive sentences of 3-1/2-7 years (ie, a total of 15 years possible).

Carl, sexual assault; was offered 2-6 years as a deal. He refused, claiming innocence; was convicted and sentenced to 7-1/2 to 15 years plus 6-12 years suspended if of good behavior on first conviction.

Are these agreements fair to the accused? Are they fair to the victim? Are they fair to the public?

In New Hampshire, case law governs plea agreements. “… (They) have been openly recognized as a proper part of the criminal process since 1970, although they have existed … from time immemorial.” (State vs. Manoly., 1970) This is also the case in almost all other states.

Negotiated charges and plea agreements are used by both defendants and prosecutors. Why?

Obviously, if a plea can be satisfactorily negotiated, the costs of litigation can be avoided.

If the crime has traumatized a victim, the trial sometimes exacerbates that trauma. Some victims refuse to testify or fear the thought of facing their perpetrator again. Think about it – if you were brutally raped, beaten or terrorized for hours, pistol-whipped, etc., how would you feel going through a process of hours or days seeing the person who wronged you? Could you face relentless questioning by lawyers about the incident, about your private life – and with public viewing – with the possibility of details in the newspaper and on television?

So, would you be grateful that a plea deal has been reached and that the person who committed the crime will be punished without any further involvement on your part?

Or, on the other hand: What if you are willing to testify against that person and want to see them receive the full penalty of the law, and then the state offers a plea deal? What if that sentence could have been 10 to 20 years if he/she was convicted by a jury and the plea deal was 2 to 4 years? Would you feel cheated? Would the public feel cheated into thinking that this person should have had the full weight of the law and should not have been able to get a shorter sentence just for pleading guilty?

In anticipation of this article, I asked an inmate at Concord Men’s Prison what he thought of the agreements. (He had refused one in his case and was sentenced to triple the plea deal.) He said, “You are being penalized for exercising your right to a trial if you are offered a plea deal of 2 years and they they say you’ll get up to 20 years if you lose at trial.” In other words, “If you insist that you have a right to a trial, we will convict you and give you twice, three times, etc. more years prison than if you accept our offer.’

Adv. Michael Skibby, former head of the Concord Public Defender’s Office. NH, stated the following before a legislative committee:

“The vast majority of cases in this country and in New Hampshire are resolved by plea rather than trial. Nationally, 80 or 90% of felony cases are resolved by plea.” “Less than 10% of the felony cases that we (the Public Defender) handle actually go to trial.”

He went on to explain why this happens, including the difficulty of trying to predict how a jury will react to the evidence, the defendant and the alleged victim. He said: “I won cases I was sure I was going to lose and I lost cases I was sure I was going to win. And most experienced criminal defense attorneys would tell you the same thing.” And prosecutors might say the same thing. “Obviously, both sides take a risk when they go to court.

I mentioned above that settling a case by settlement avoids huge costs. Adv. Skibbie also stated how plea agreements relieve the court of a monumental amount of cases. Imagine – if 90% of felony cases settled now and that stopped! If you think the court system is now bogged down with backlogs (which it is), imagine what it would be like with 9 times as many cases!

He also commented on the prosecution’s rationale for higher sentences if the defendant had insisted on a trial and then been convicted. One reason is the effect the trial has on victims and other civilian witnesses. Similarly, a defendant’s attorney is motivated to negotiate a plea as “…this will usually be either a change of charges, a recommendation for a sentence that the defendant will perceive as something better than what he or she would have received after trial or both.” He said in sex cases there are additional factors for both parties to motivate plea bargaining.

“First, from a prosecutor’s point of view, these cases involve more uncertainty…” “They are difficult cases for both parties. Even when prosecutors get convictions, the overturned rate is higher than any other case.” On the defense side, “Convictions after trial are very, very high. If you’re a 20-year-old man and you’re facing potentially 20 years in prison if you lose this trial, there are a lot of people who think that’s the end of their life – to be 40 years old.”

Referring to the difficulty of a victim speaking about uncomfortable and personal matters during sex crime trials, he said: “But on the other hand, there is probably nothing that is more difficult (for a defendant) to admit in a public courtroom of a sex crime’ (in the case of a plea agreement).

Another important factor in sexual assault cases is the ability for the defendant to register every year for the rest of his life as a sex offender. If the prosecutor offers a plea deal that still requires this provision, many defendants struggle to agree to the plea. Some say no, preferring to take a chance in the process. This “registration aspect” is unique to sex crimes. If you rob a bank, brutally assault someone, kidnap a child, or even hold the police “at bay” with an assault rifle, you may “plead” and when you serve your time and are released, you’re ‘through’ the system. There is no registration every year at the police station and no easy way for the public to know that you have been imprisoned for a crime.

If you move to another community or country, you can effectively become anonymous as far as your criminal past is concerned.

Would you accept a trade? Will it be an easy decision for you? Adv. Skibbie put it very succinctly: In a plea deal, “you’re talking about 5 years in prison versus 10 years in prison — or 7 years in prison versus 20 years in prison.”

“It’s very, very difficult to make a decision to go to prison, even in a relatively very short period of time.”

What if you’re innocent? Say they offer you two years as a plea deal, with a possible 20 if you lose the trial. Do you forget that you are innocent and accept the plea because you have heard that justice is not always fair and you can be wrongly convicted?

I’ll leave you with two more cases – actual cases in New Hampshire. These are direct quotes from the convicts.

(one) “I have been in prison…since 1995. The day my case started I was offered a plea deal of 4 years…the deal was only on the table until the victim took the stand. Because I was innocent, I went to trial…” “I was convicted on 7 of the 12 charges. The judge sentenced me to 18-1/2 to 37 years, with another 14 to 28 years suspended. I could probably do a maximum of 65 years.” “If I had been guilty, I would have easily pleaded guilty, completed the sex offender (treatment) program, and as of today, I would be back in the community.”

(other) “The prosecutor offered me 5 years in prison…(as a plea).” “I refused… knowing I was innocent (and)… I wanted to clear my name (at trial).” “On January 30 I was found guilty. “The judge sentenced me to 33-1/2 to 67 years.”

It is difficult to comment on these specific cases unless one has read more about these cases. But they are all examples of our agreement system. That the state can offer such a small sentence on a plea and then issue such a long sentence if the case goes to trial,

Is a crime made less heinous because the perpetrator agrees to a plea deal? If the prosecutor is certain that the defendant is guilty, is he doing the public a disservice by offering that offender a very light sentence against a much harsher sentence if convicted by a jury?

The plea bargaining system is indeed an interesting aspect of criminal justice and, in my opinion, one that may never be truly fair to everyone or even understood.

#Plea #Bargains #Deal

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