Cato held a conference on plea bargaining last month:
Today, more than 95 percent of criminal convictions in the United States are obtained through plea bargains. As the Supreme Court observed in 2012, “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Compared with jury trials, plea bargains are efficient and inexpensive, and they free up resources that might otherwise be devoted to securing convictions in cases where the defendant’s guilt is not seriously in doubt.
But plea bargaining has a dark side as well. Given the imbalance of resources between prosecutors and most defendants, together with the array of tools that prosecutors can bring to bear in any given case, such as mandatory minimum sentences, charge-stacking, and witness inducements, it is fair to ask how many guilty pleas are truly voluntary. A growing body of evidence suggests that false confessions may not be nearly as rare as we would hope, and indeed the specter of coercion casts a shadow over the entire plea-bargaining process.
The panel featured the Hon. Joseph Goodwin, a federal judge in West Virginia who has announced that he would no longer accept plea bargains except when there are truly extenuating, case-specific circumstances; New York City criminal defense attorney and popular law blogger Scott Greenfield, and University of Illinois law Prof. Suja Thomas, with Cato’s Clark Neily moderating. You can watch or download it here.