When you think about a person being convicted on criminal charges, do you picture a courtroom where a judge reads the verdict reached by the jury? While such scenarios do occur, they are much less common than the average person realizes. In fact, more than 90 percent of all criminal convictions—as high as 97 percent in federal court—are reached by plea bargain.
A plea bargain, in most cases, is a deal reached between prosecutors and the accused where the accused pleads guilty to a charge—often one that is lesser than the charges originally filed—in exchange for leniency during sentencing. A criminal suspect is under no legal obligation to accept a plea bargain. This means, however, that at least nine out of ten convictions are the direct result of decisions made by those accused of committing crimes rather than by a judge or jury.
Plea Bargains Sometimes Make Sense
In some situations, a plea bargain truly represents a suspect’s best option. For example, the suspect may have committed the crime in question, and there may be sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. Prosecutors may offer a plea bargain based on the suspect’s history and request the suspect’s cooperation in closing the case quickly. Prosecuting a criminal suspect takes time, money, and effort by a large number of people, so a guilty plea in a clear-cut case is usually in everyone’s best interest.
Problems for Younger Suspects
While plea bargains are helpful in many cases, a recent study found that teenaged suspects are often not equipped to make good decisions about guilty pleas. The study involved more than 500 students and adults who were asked to participate in a decision-making exercise. Some participants were told to behave as though they had committed a crime while the others were told to act as if they had not. Each participant was then told their chances of being found guilty at trial and the benefits that could be realized by pleading guilty before trial.
The study showed that as the age of the participant increased, their likelihood of pleading guilty to a crime they did not commit when down. Teens who were innocent pleaded guilty during the exercise about one-third of the time. Innocent adult, by comparison, pleaded guilty in just percent of cases.
While the study was conducted in the form of hypothetical exercises instead of real-world, justice system applications, the findings could have implications in the juvenile court systems, at least according to the team that conducted the study.
First among these is the concern that teenagers largely lack the maturity to make effective plea decisions voluntarily. The team suggests that regulations should be put in place to prevent coercive situations in which teens feel forced to plead guilty. They also say that prosecutors should be required to present in court how a guilty plea was reached and the conditions under which it was given. Finally, the researchers that laws be changed to make developmental factors relevant in deciding whether a teen can make plea bargain decisions, perhaps even to prohibit adolescents from pleading guilty entirely. An important caveat, however, would be to ensure that the benefits currently made available through pleading guilty are still available to suspects through other means.
Call Us for Help
If your son or daughter has been arrested and charged with a crime, it is important to speak with an experienced Connecticut criminal defense attorney right away. We will help you explore all of your available options, including possible plea bargains. Call 860-290-8690 to schedule a free, confidential consultation at Woolf Law Firm, LLC today.