Plea Bargains vs Criminal Trials

The Truth About Plea Bargains & Criminal Trials

Taking a criminal case to trial is rare. Really rare. As in 2% or less of total cases end up in criminal trials rare.

That means that over 97% of criminal cases in the past few years resolve before trial in federal courts. And in state cases, the percentage is even higher. The declining numbers are not new, but for many legal observers, the trend is troubling and intensifying.

Supreme Court Justice Kennedy once acknowledged “…the reality that criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas and not a system of trials”.[1] Plea negotiations are a defining feature of the federal and state criminal justice systems.

Empty jury seats in courtroom due to plea bargain by Ohio criminal defense attoreny

The Age of The Plea Bargain

A 2018 study from the Pew Research Center revealed the extent of the situation. Of the nearly 80,000 federal prosecutions that year, around 2% of cases actually went to trial, and of those, less than 1% won their case[2]. “The vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains—some 94 percent at the state level, and some 97 percent at the federal level. Estimates for misdemeanor convictions run even higher. These are astonishing statistics.”[3]

It’s no secret that the majority of criminal cases never reach a trial, but what makes an innocent person want to accept a plea deal? Experts point out there are a number of reasons why. It could be that the client wants to resolve the case expeditiously instead of facing long delays, particularly if they are incarcerated.[4] The defendant may fear that a trial would result in some form of sentencing retaliation if they do not accept the plea.[5] In that same line of thinking, there are occasions that a plea bargain provides an opportunity to reduce exposure to a lengthy sentence[6].

Ohio Courts Response To The Pandemic

Starting in March 2020, courts in Ohio postponed hearings in response to the state of emergency declared by Governor Mike Dewine. Courts across the state suspended jury trials from mid-March 2020 until June 2020 with authority based in the Ohio Revised Code, which gives individual judges the power to continue cases beyond speedy-trial deadlines on “reasonable grounds,” like an active public-health emergency (coronavirus pandemic). [7]

Courts have adjusted to reopen despite the pandemic. Locally, in July 2020, courtrooms reopened and began to operate on a rotating docket schedule for jury trials to allow for sufficient distancing of jurors.[8] Additional precautionary measures were taken to protect jurors and staff, including the installation of plexiglass barriers, social distancing, sanitation protocols, and requirement of protective facial coverings. [9]

Its effect will be studied in years to come, but early estimates show most attorneys (86%) agreed the pandemic affected their ability to communicate with clients and forced videoconferencing limited their ability to provide counsel.[10] Moreover, in the same survey, 81% of defense attorneys stated that the plea negotiation process had changed including the “overall leverage in the plea negotiation process has shifted further to the prosecutor.”[11] The power of a plea agreement was enhanced as the world began to process the forced pandemic era changes, such as delays in Speedy Jury Trial rights and suspension of the Right to a Public Trial.

Lawyers Lack Jury Trial Experience

The right to trial by jury is the cornerstone of the American judicial system. The founding fathers envisioned it as a safeguard for those accused of a crime.

But in actuality, for many their experience with the criminal justice systems is a series of bargaining, negotiation, and planned pleas which is done behind closed doors. The number of federal criminal defendants opting for a trial has fallen 60% in two decades from 1998 until now. Trials have become decreasing popular and as a result, the implications are felt in the training of criminal defense attorneys.

An experienced trial attorney with experience can review the case file, evaluate the prosecutor’s evidence, weigh the strengths and weaknesses, deliver an overall case strategy and theme, then discuss what advantages you may have with taking your case to a jury.

Nearly one in three Americans have a criminal record.[12] That number equates to about 70 million people who face barriers to employment, economic security, and housing. [13]

Don’t settle for just a “sentencing advocate”. If you or someone you love is facing criminal charges, contact an experienced trial lawyer, Joseph Edwards. He offers a no-cost initial consultation and practices in both the state and federal courts around Ohio.

In thirty years, Joseph Edwards has tried over 100 jury trials, argued over ten cases before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and more than seven cases before the Ohio Supreme Court. He has handled over one-hundred fifty criminal appeals and has represented persons accused in a diverse array of matters. Call Columbus, Ohio criminal defense attorney at 614-309-0243.

[1] Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 157, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 182 L.Ed.2d 398 (2012).
[5] Many researchers have found that those who go to trial are more likely to receive harsher sentences than those who accept a plea when comparable offenses are considered (Albonetti, 1991; Britt, 2000; Dixon, 1995; Engen and Gainey, 2000; Kurlychek and Johnson, 2004; Steffensmeier and Demuth, 2000, 2001; Steffensmeier and Hebert, 1999; Steffensmeier et al., 1993, 1998) from:

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