The American Bar Association’s (ABA) Plea Bargain Task Force Wednesday released its 2023 report, which found that 98 percent of criminal proceedings end in a plea bargain instead of a jury trial. According to the report, the emphasis on resolving criminal proceedings through plea bargains negatively impacts the integrity of the process by creating “perverse incentives” for lawyers and judges to conclude cases quickly instead of justly. The report explained:
Police and government misconduct often goes unchecked because so few defendants proceed to pre-trial hearings where such misconduct is litigated. The reality that so few pretrial matters are litigated leads prosecutors to be less critical of their witnesses and less willing to scrutinize the strength of their cases, knowing that they won’t be held accountable at trial. Defense lawyers, similarly, are less likely to properly investigate cases, knowing their clients will almost certainly take a plea.
The report asserts that these issues also exacerbate racial inequalities and systemic injustice, with Black defendants less likely to receive favorable pleas and less likely to see charges dropped. In addition, the report bemoans the lack of jury trials as a loss for civic engagement, saying that jury trials provide critical oversight and are one of the only ways for communities to influence how prosecutors enforce the law. As the report puts it, “the voice of the community is almost entirely lost in a system dominated by pleas.”
The ABA Task Force provided several recommendations throughout its report, including calls for general reforms such as the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, modifications to rules of procedure to create a more robust process, and the adoption of ethics rules to provide guidance for lawyers and judges. They also presented 14 principles that guided their analysis, which they say should guide policymakers, lawyers, and judges in approaching the plea bargain process. These ranged from the idea that a “vibrant and active docket” of trials promotes justice, to the idea that there are rights that defendants should never have to waive as part of a plea bargain.
The ABA’s Criminal Justice Section established the Plea Bargain Task Force in 2019 to explore and address the criticisms of the plea bargain process in the United States. This report was the culmination of their work researching and interviewing stakeholders from across the criminal justice system.