The title of this post is the title of this great new document from the Vera Institute of Justice. Here is part of the report’s introduction:
In whatever form it takes, plea bargaining remains a low-visibility, off-the-record, and informal process that usually occurs in conference rooms and courtroom hallways — or through private telephone calls or e-mails — far away from the prying eyes and ears of open court. Bargains are usually struck with no witnesses present and made without investigation, testimony, impartial fact-finding, or adherence to the required burden of proof. Moreover, little to no documentation exists of the bargaining process that takes place between initial charge and a person’s formal admission of guilt in open court, and final plea deals that close out cases are themselves rarely written down or otherwise recorded. As such, plea deals, and the process that produces them, are largely unreviewable and subject to little public scrutiny. Thus, despite the high frequency with which plea deals are used, most people — aside from the usual courtroom actors — understand neither the mechanics of plea bargaining nor the reasons so many people decide to plead guilty.
Plea bargaining has, however, become the central focus of a growing, but still small, body of empirical research. In recent years, mounting concerns about plea bargaining’s role in encouraging the widespread forfeiture of constitutionally guaranteed trial rights and associated procedural protections — and its critical role in fueling mass incarceration — has stimulated further urgency in understanding how the process works. Indeed, an array of questions regarding its fairness have emerged. Over the last few decades, prosecutorial leverage in plea negotiations has increased exponentially as changes in substantive law have bolstered criminal penalties and given prosecutors a wider range of choices to use when filing charges (such as mandatory penalties, sentencing enhancements, and more serious yet duplicative crimes already well covered by existing law). But increased exposure to harsher penalties has not been matched with increased procedural protections for defendants. Prosecutors’ wide powers in plea bargaining still go largely unchecked, and there are no meaningful oversight mechanisms or procedural safeguards to protect against unfair or coercive practices, raising fears about arbitrariness and inequality. Given this lack of regulation, concern has also grown over the extent to which innocent people are regularly being induced to plead guilty, as well as plea bargaining’s role in perpetuating racial and ethnic disparities in criminal case outcomes — for example, plea bargaining practices that send more Black people to prison or jail than similarly situated white people.
Plea bargaining’s full impact on the legal system and justice-involved people remains unknown, but empirical research on this little understood yet immensely influential practice has begun to emerge. In order to provide an accessible summary of existing research to policymakers and the public, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) examined a body of empirical studies that has developed around plea bargaining. Although this review is not exhaustive, it provides a picture not only of the current state of scholarship on plea bargaining, but also of the gaps in knowledge that must be filled.