The Devil's Bargain: How Plea Agreements, Never Contemplated by the Framers, Undermine Justice

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Most Americans are under the mistaken impression that when the government accuses someone of a crime, the case typically proceeds to trial, where a jury of laypeople hears arguments from the prosecution and the defense, then deliberates over the evidence before deciding on the defendant's guilt or innocence. This image of American justice is wildly off the mark. Criminal cases rarely go to trial, because about 95 percent are resolved by plea bargains. In a plea bargain, the prosecutor usually offers a reduced prison sentence if the defendant agrees to waive his right to a jury trial and admit guilt in a summary proceeding before a judge.

This standard operating procedure was not contemplated by the Framers. The inability to enter into plea arrangements was not among the grievances set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Plea bargaining was not discussed at the Constitutional Convention or during ratification debates. In fact, the Constitution says "the Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall be by Jury." It is evident that jury trials were supposed to play a central role in the administration of American criminal justice. But as the Yale law professor John Langbein noted in a 1992 Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article, "There is an astonishing discrepancy between what the constitutional texts promise and what the criminal justice system delivers."

No one ever proposed a radical restructuring of the criminal justice system, one that would replace jury trials with a supposedly superior system of charge-and-sentence bargaining. Like the growth of government in general, plea bargaining slowly crept into and eventually grew to dominate the system.

From the government's perspective, plea bargaining has two advantages. First, it's less expensive and time-consuming than jury trials, which means prosecutors can haul more people into court and legislators can add more offenses to the criminal code. Second, by cutting the jury out of the picture, prosecutors and judges acquire more influence over case outcomes.

From a defendant's perspective, plea bargaining extorts guilty pleas. …