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Empirical Data, Tentative Conclusions, and Difficult Questions About Plea Bargaining in Three California Counties

NCJ Number
Federal Probation Volume: 44 Issue: 2 Dated: (June 1980) Pages: 12-17
R I Parnas
Date Published
6 pages
Empirical data collected by California's Joint Committee for Revision of the Penal Code relates to a unique survey of the plea negotiation procedures followed in three California counties.
Observers of the plea bargaining process have long maintained that the system often works to penalize a defendant for exercising the right to trial while concomitantly depriving the public of needed protection through lenient sentencing. Preliminary analysis of the California data shows a divergence of opinion among prosecutors, public defenders, judges, probation officers, police officers, and defendants. While population, geography, resource availability, and other aspects create differences among jurisdictions, cross-jurisdictional and intrajurisdictional consistency would help to offset discriminatory sentencing disparity. Plea bargaining, loosely defined as the tendering of a guilty plea on the defendant's perception that he will receive some benefit from the State for doing so, is supported by most of those directly involved in the middle of the process, namely judges, district attorneys, and defense counsel. Police and probation officers are the most critical as they perform essentially the same tasks whether offenders go to trial or not. Plea bargaining critics note that those incarcerated and unable to make bail are prone to plead guilty more quickly than others and that this constitutes economic inequity. It is further criticized that some district attorneys forget their duty to justice in the effort of finding a quick way out in difficult cases with regard to evidence. Moreover, those who stand trial are more apt to receive harsher sentences than those who negotiate pleas, i.e., judges seem more inclined to give lenient sentences to plea negotiators so as to process cases more quickly. Such inequities point to a need for standardizing practices, investigating motives, informing the public more thoroughly about choices, and reviewing the constitutionality of plea negotiations. Twenty-three footnotes are provided.