The Internal and External Dynamics of Plea Bargaining
In recent decades plea bargaining has been the subject of both careful scholarship and political experimentation. Studies by political scientists and criminologists have effectively described and explained the guilty plea process.1 Evaluations of several efforts to reform plea bargaining, both local 2 and statewide,3 have emerged from the political arena.
This chapter builds on both traditions. It reviews the literature on plea bargaining and explains how court professionals develop routines in handling criminal prosecutions, thus acquiring an internal view of the guilty plea process. It then explores California's plea bargaining reform as an example of what is likely to happen when courts are required to comply with externally imposed mandates to reform established procedures.
An evaluation of Proposition 8's limitation on plea bargaining also adds a new element to our working knowledge of the opportunities for plea bargaining reform in the political arena. Unlike Alaska's bargaining ban (where the state Attorney General demanded reform) or that imposed in New York (where the state legislature forbade bargaining in drug cases), California's plea bargaining limitation was sponsored by critics outside the established political system and was passed directly by the voters. It highlights the wide discrepancy between plea bargaining as it is understood and practiced by legal professionals and plea bargaining as it is perceived by the public. This tension between professional and lay perceptions of the guilty plea process can produce either misguided (or manipulated) reform or it can spark development of meaningful methods of explaining the guilty plea process and its results to citizens who understandably have a keen interest in it. California's plea bargaining limitation is an ex-