The prosecuting attorney for this area, Paul Wood, comes in for frequent criticism because of his extensive use of plea bargaining. Plea bargaining is accomplished when a reduction in charges and/or a lesser sentence is offered by the prosecutor in exchange for a guilty plea by the defendant. People in this area believe that sending more people to prison and putting fewer on probation would send a clearer message to potential law-violators that their misdeeds will not be taken lightly when they're caught.
But Mr. Wood certainly isn't in the minority in his use of plea bargaining. In fact it's just the opposite. In federal cases, plea bargaining increased in frequency from 84 percent in 1984 to 94 percent in 2001. In state cases, plea bargaining takes the place of a jury trial in fully 90 percent of all criminal cases. That means that 9 out of every 10 cases are plea bargained instead of going to trial and being decided by a jury.
Oddly enough, the opposition to plea bargaining, and there is significant opposition nationwide, is opposite from the arguments found in this part of the country. Opponents nationally fear there are abuses being done by the state that coerces the defendant into pleading guilty for something he didn't do. For example, most defendants are poor, most attorneys in the judicial system aren't. Most defendants are uneducated or under-educated and attorneys aren't. Most defendants have limited vocabularies and attorneys have extensive ones. So the scenario is that a poor, uneducated person with a limited ability to speak his mind and defend himself comes up against a well-dressed, educated, financially secure attorney with a sophisticated vocabulary and the winner is going to be obvious, even if the defendant is innocent of the charge, which he or she sometimes is. The argument says that if you're facing a 20-year prison sentence if convicted by a jury and the prosecutor offers you a maximum five-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, many defendants will take the plea, even if they're innocent of the crime.
So the opponents to plea bargaining are from two opposing sides. Those who feel that justice isn't being done by letting a defendant off lightly and those who believe the defendant is at such a disadvantage that they plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit.
This is a situation almost all of us have experience with, albeit usually not in the courtroom. Most of us have been accused, at some time in our lives, and often more than once, of doing something we didn't do. Usually the only line of defense we have is to say we didn't do it and that often falls on the accuser's deaf ears. How do you prove a negative? How do you prove you didn't do something when the accuser believes you did? All we can do is to continue to insist that we're innocent of the charge, knowing in our hearts that the accuser thinks that not only did we do it but we're not big enough to own up to it.
On the other hand, there are several reasons why it's in the best interest of the judicial system to plea bargain. It relieves court congestion, it saves the government a lot of money because trials are expensive to conduct, it alleviates the risks and uncertainties of a trial and it insures the accused suffers some punishment. Prosecutors like to win cases and get convictions. That's their job. And nothing is certain when you take a case to a jury, even if you're convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the accused is guilty. The jury may not weigh the evidence and testimony you present the way you intended, the jury may develop a sympathy for the defendant, or the jury may not understand the implications of the case you've put together.
A plea bargain accomplishes the goal of a prosecutor and that's to get a conviction. Prosecutors aren't soft on crime; they just see a trial as a game of chance and a plea bargain as a slam dunk.
And because most prosecutors are also politicians because they were elected to their post, the meat of their political campaigns always focus on their conviction rate. The higher it is, the better job they're doing.
Plea bargaining keeps that rate high, jury trials don't.