We all know what a jury trial looks like. For those who haven’t seen one in person, you’ve likely seen one depicted on television. In all reality, jury trials are far more common on television than they are in the Colorado criminal courts. Though citizens are guaranteed the right to a jury trial—few ever invoke that right.
A guest column in the Colorado Springs Gazette this week outlines some concerns with a system so dependent on plea bargains.
According to the piece, 97.6% of convictions are a result of plea bargains in the state of Colorado. In drug cases, the numbers are even more extreme, with only 1.4% of drug convictions resulting from a jury trial.
These numbers are a far cry from just a few decades ago, where over 8% of convictions came from a jury trial. So, what’s changed? Prosecutors are wheelers and dealers, threatening defendants with a potentially life changing sentence if convicted at trial, and a more lenient one if they agree to bargain.
The power of the criminal courts now rests more with the prosecutor.
When a prosecutor decides to bring charges against someone, they know the odds are that this person will opt for a plea agreement. They may be tempted to push for more serious charges then, allowing them to drop them down in the bargaining stages and making the deal seem even sweeter for the stressed-out defendant. Also, because they know a plea bargain will likely be the result, they can push weaker cases forward in hopes of getting a conviction through a plea where one wouldn’t be possible in a jury trial.
Many people outside of the system don’t understand how the plea bargain system could result in a bigger burden on our criminal courts. Instead they see them as a time and money saving solution, allowing cases to bypass a lengthy trial. While this is true, a prosecutor knows they can push more cases through when they don’t have to prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” as they would have to at trial.
In addition, these people have likely never been in the defendant’s shoes. Imagine you are charged with a crime. You are told you can fight the charges, but that the evidence against you is strong and if you choose a jury trial the prosecutor will seek the maximum sentence. The prosecutor tells you that your defense won’t work, that you will serve years behind bars. As an alternative, they offer you a chance to plead guilty and avoid prison time altogether. What do you choose?
If you are accused of a criminal offense, making decisions like this can be difficult. Plea bargains aren’t without benefits. In many cases, they are the best solution for everyone involved. But, this is a determination that should be made after careful consideration and counseling with your attorney.