The Problem With Pleas

by

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a fair trial. But how do you evaluate fairness when more than 90 percent of criminal cases never even make it in front of a judge or jury?

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments today on whether two defendants who did not take plea deals were denied effective counsel, but as NPR’s Nina Totenberg explains, if the court comes to this conclusion, it also has to decide what to do about it:

Should the defendant have a second chance at the plea offer? Do courts have the power to order that sort of remedy? Or should the defendant be restored to his original place in the system, before a trial and before a plea offer was made?

Our 2004 film The Plea tells the story of how pervasive plea deals are, and how they’re often misused. While proponents say the agreements give defendants options, plea bargaining is more often than not used to save money and time. The criminal justice system would likely collapse if every case went in front of a judge and/or jury.

But critics argue that the push to resolve cases through plea bargains jeopardizes the constitutional rights of defendants, who may be pressured to admit guilt whether they are guilty or not.

One example is Erma Faye Stewart, who was arrested along with 26 others after an informant tipped off the police to an alleged drug ring. Stewart told her court-appointed lawyer she was innocent, but with two young children at home, she took her lawyer’s advice to plead guilty to delivery of a controlled substance of more than four grams in a drug-free zone. She was sentenced to 10 years probation and was required to pay $1,800 in fines and report to her parole officer monthly.

Then, during the trial of one of the accused, it was discovered that the informant had lied about everything. All other cases were dismissed — but Stewart and the other seven people who pleaded guilty were left with charges on their record.  Over the years, this meant that Stewart was ineligible for food stamps and federal education assistance. She was essentially left destitute.

The problem isn’t just bad advice from defense attorneys. Prosecutors now hold the cards when it comes to leveraging punishment, according to a recent New York Times investigation. The reporters found that mandatory sentencing laws have made the question of actual innocence or guilt almost irrelevant; rather, it’s a question of whether to risk facing a judge or jury.

Update [March 22, 2012]: In two landmark rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to a fair trial and adequate counsel extends to plea bargains.

“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is quoted as writing for the 5-4 majority. “The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences.”

Bonus: Read the stories of three others from our film who were forced to confront plea bargains: Patsy Kelly Jarrett, Charles Gampero Jr. and Kerry Max Cook.

Photo: A detail of the West Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
Frontline Journalism Fund

Supporting Investigative Reporting

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.PBSPark FoundationMacArthur FoundationwyncoteCPB

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.