Plea Bargaining

June 14, 1974

Report Outline
Rising Awareness of Plea Bargaining
Question of Constitutional Rights
Proposals for Changing Plea System
Special Focus

Rising Awareness of Plea Bargaining

The constitution guarantees every American accused of a serious crime the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront witnesses against him, and the right to be proven guilty by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But the vast majority of criminal defendants never have their day in court. It is estimated that 90 per cent of all criminal convictions are based on the defendant's own plea of guilty.

Many, though not all, of these guilty pleas are the direct result of negotiations known as plea bargaining. The term refers to a pre-arraignment “deal” between the prosecution and the defense in which the defendant is offered a lenient sentence if he agrees to plead guilty, perhaps to a lesser charge, thus saving the state the time and expense of a trial. In most jurisdictions plea negotiations are informal and off-the-record, sometimes conducted in hurried whispers in the courtroom or through the bars of a jail. “It's like sex before Freud,” said Steve Sachs, a former U.S. Attorney for Maryland, “everybody did it, but few discussed it.”

Starting Aug. 1, however, plea bargaining in the federal courts will be subject to formal rules—barring an unexpected rejection by Congress. On that day the Supreme Court's proposed revisions of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure are due to take effect. Under the new rules, any plea agreement worked out by federal prosecutors and defense attorneys must be presented in open court for the judge to accept or reject. If it is accepted, the defendant will be assured of receiving a lighter sentence than he could expect if tried and convicted. If the agreement is rejected, the defendant will be given an opportunity to change his plea.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Criminal Sentencing
Mar. 18, 2022  Wrongful Convictions
Nov. 05, 2004  Sentencing Debates
May 10, 2002  Three-Strikes Laws
Feb. 12, 1999  Plea Bargaining
May 26, 1995  Mandatory Sentencing
Jul. 22, 1994  Crime Victims’ Rights
Jun. 14, 1974  Plea Bargaining
Feb. 13, 1937  Probation, Reformation, and Parole
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
Sentencing and Corrections