The justice system is designed around defendants accepting plea deals, which get people in and out so courts can handle the thousands of cases that come through their doors each year. When someone is charged with a crime they can exercise their right to a trial by their peers or accept a plea deal, usually to a lesser charge. For example, in Colorado first degree assault carries a mandatory minimum ten years in prison to a maximum of thirty-two years in prison. First degree assault is where someone used a deadly weapon to cause serious bodily injury, such as hitting someone with a beer bottle and causing a deep gash requiring stitches. If you are charged with first degree assault and the prosecution offers to plead guilty to a lesser felony with four years of probation would you accept it if you knew you were provoked and had used justifiable force? Most individuals sure would, anything to avoid mandatory prison. Lets examine another type of case, sex assault. If someone is convicted of sexual assault they are looking at an indeterminate life sentence. They can spend the rest of their life in a prison cell. When the prosecution offers to plead guilty to a lesser offense that has a finite sentence of six years prison, do you accept that even if you beleive you have a decent shot at proving your innocence at trial?
Law makers pass mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes. When someone is facing a mandatory prison sentence the offer can be to probation or some other plea that does not include mandatory prison. This is a tempting deal and any individual facing prison must consider the offer. This causes people to waive their rights to trial and be sentenced without telling their story to a jury.
This is a huge issue that I discuss in depth with my clients. I will never tell a client they have better than an 85% of being acquitted at trial because it is impossible to know exactly what a jury will conclude. Many times a plea deal to a lesser charge will be in the best interest of my client because they are guarenteed to receive probation. But other clients have strong cases and decide to take the deal to avoid the possability of getting prison.
Anywhere from 95% to 97% of criminal cases are resolved through a plea deal in the state courts. Are 95% of the people accused of crimes guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? When prosectutors make plea offers to indivudals they usually include the sentence stipulations, such as how much jail time or how long probation will last for. Contrary to popular belief, Judges do not have control of what sentences people receive in the majority of cases. Most sentences are worked out between the prosecution and defense. The use of plea deals allows the courts to process the plethora of cases that come in the courts. Imagine for a second if everyone charged with a crime utalized their sixth amendment right to a jury trial. The courts would not have anywhere near enough resources to prosecute everyone and the District Attorneys would have to prioritize what cases they are going to charge. The system would be filled with trials and those convicted would be sentenced under mandatory prison sentences that law makers have preposed. The prisons would fill up with people serving long sentences and there would be outcrys from the public to reform the situation. It would be a mess.
The legislature has passed many laws that make punishments so strict and take sentencing options out of the hands of our elected Judges. These enhancements cause people to fear their right to trial and take pleas. I think the art of trial is essential to keeping the justice system honest and fair. I applaud all the criminal defense attorneys who stand up to the system and keep it on its toes.
For more resources about criminal defense check out our Dale Carson Criminal Attorney website.