Monitoring the Plea Process
Susan R. Klein
University of Texas School of Law
May 17, 2013
Duquesne University Law Review, 2013
U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 490
Gideon versus Wainwright heralded a new age in American criminal prosecutions. Indigent blacks in the South would have the same opportunity to fight felony criminal charges and receive the same sentencing discounts of favorable guilty pleas as rich white northerners, and the innocent would be accurately separated by adversarial testing from the guilty. Yet fifty years later, indigent defendants, (who comprise 80% of total defendants), often get substandard counsel, and innocent individuals are rarely, but sometimes convicted or plead guilty. Some of the blame falls squarely on the Court for settling on the contours of our current two-pronged test in Strickland versus Washington, that determines when counsel is ineffective and the defendant is accordingly prejudiced. Some blame falls on legislators for failing to adequately fund defense counsel. Our criminal justice evolved from an adversarial system to what Judge Lynch calls, "a defacto administrative regime". The criminal justice system is the plea bargaining system.
In this essay, the author posits that last term's Lafler versus Cooper and Missouri versus Frye gave us another chance to both police equality of sentences for the guilty, and to mandate better investigation of the underlying offense to ferret out the innocent. Information and resource disparity skews the system. The defense bar cannot buck a system stacked so heavily against them. Large-scale structural reform such as legislation or proper funding for defense is equally unlikely. Plea bargaining has failed.
Professor Klein suggests that our most politically feasible hope for reform is for federal and state judges to amend the rules of criminal procedure in order to monitor and record the discovery and plea negotiation process via nonwaivable conferences. A second proposal is for the Department of Justice and local District Attorneys' Offices to implement internal guidelines to regulate the timing and content of plea negotiations and discovery procedures. Though the Court imposed its new Sixth Amendment duties on the defense bar, it is prosecutors who have the incentive to ensure the finality of guilty pleas and to stave off potentially harsher legislative or judicial action in this area.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 41
Date posted: May 18, 2013 ; Last revised: June 12, 2013
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