Taming the System: The Control of Discretion in Criminal Justice, 1950-1990

By Samuel Walker | Go to book overview

4
The Plea-Bargaining Problem

The Politics of Plea Bargaining

Among all the discretionary decisions in the criminal justice system, plea bargaining is most often the focal point of general public dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system. 1 The idea that most cases are settled by "deals" is a convenient symbol of everything that people believe is wrong with the justice system.

Public discontent takes two forms, reflecting the political divisions over crime and justice issues. Many people believe that plea bargains allow dangerous criminals to beat the system and go free. Alarmists claim that only 1 percent of all criminals go to prison (Fig. 4.1). While it is true that most offenders are not punished, the 1 percent figure is extremely misleading and incorrectly focuses on plea bargaining. 2 The real weaknesses in the criminal process are the failure of victims to report 63 percent of all crimes and the fact that the police make arrests in only about 20 percent of those that are reported. And, as Chapter 2 indicated, about half of these arrests are dismissed (Fig. 4.2). Nearly all the remaining cases result in a conviction, usually through a guilty plea. 3 Whether justice is done through those pleas is a question this chapter will address in due course. For the moment, however, it is important to emphasize that plea bargaining is not the primary cause of the failure of the criminal justice system to punish wrongdoers. 4

Nonetheless, the belief that plea-bargaining "deals" allow offenders to get off easy remains strong. Adherents of this view believe that the

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Taming the System: The Control of Discretion in Criminal Justice, 1950-1990
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Contents ix
  • 1 - Discretion and Its Discontents 3
  • 2 - Police Discretion 21
  • Conclusions 52
  • 3 - The Two Bail Reform Movements 54
  • Conclusions 79
  • 4 - The Plea-Bargaining Problem 81
  • Conclusions 108
  • 5 - Sentencing Reform 112
  • Conclusions 141
  • 6 - A System Tamed? an Interim Report on the Control of Discretion 145
  • Conclusion 156
  • Notes 157
  • Index 185
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