With an overburdened justice system straining to handle all the criminal cases constantly coming in from arrests, the United States has employed the tactic of plea bargaining to lessen the trial load. Since the 60s, the use of plea bargaining has reached epidemic levels, with statistics showing that 94% of felony convictions at the state-level and 97% of convictions at the federal level come as a consequence of plea deals. Now, a study conducted by the human rights organization Fair Trials reports that this method of using trial waivers to streamline the criminal conviction process is spreading to the rest of the world.
Hardly anybody would label this trend as ideal. The right to a fair trial is cherished not only as an American right under the Sixth Amendment, but also internationally under Article 10 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights and various others. The practice of plea bargaining explicitly circumvents this right to a fair trial, purportedly in the interest of all parties involved, but the evidence indicates an alarming number of guilty pleas coming under socioeconomic pressures rather than justice.
Plea bargaining began in the United States around the time of Prohibition in the 20s, and it resulted in an immediate and sizeable jump in the conviction rate. About a decade after plea bargains came into existence, federal prosecutions over Prohibition outnumbered all federal prosecutions in 1914 by a factor of eight. After the Supreme Court decided in 1970 that plea bargaining was allowed, the practice has only become more common.
International statistics about plea bargains indicate increased use of the practice across the world. In England, Australia and Russia, more than 60% of cases end in plea deals, but the numbers in countries like Italy, India and Chile are around 10%. Across the board, though, these numbers are set to increase. The country of Georgia, for instance, has seen an increase of plea deals from 13% to 88% between the years of 2005 and 2012.
As with entertainment and fashion trends, it would seem that America first sets the standard for the world to follow. The issue of plea bargains gets entrenched in foreign justice systems for another reason than just following the leader, however. When the United States helps to establish new governments in places like Poland, Colombia and Bolivia, the reforms usually come with a heavy dose of plea bargaining as standard operating procedure.
On the domestic front, as with the Prohibition era, it would seem that the plea bargaining still holds a close relationship to alcohol use and abuse in America. Many DUI charges are resolved through plea deals, such as the case with wet reckless DUI plea bargains in California.
There’s no doubt that plea bargaining gets convictions and makes the jobs easier for lawyers, judges and the criminal justice system at large, but is it just? People could argue that plea bargaining is a necessary evil, since the alternative is to eliminate fair trials for everyone because the caseload is just too high, but few would argue that it’s just.