Measuring the Creative Plea Bargain
46 Pages Posted: 30 May 2017 Last revised: 26 Mar 2019
Date Written: May 27, 2017
A great deal of criminal law scholarship and practice turns on whether a defendant gets a good deal through plea bargaining. But what is a good deal? And how do defense attorneys secure such deals? Much scholarship measures plea bargains by one metric: how many years the defendant receives at sentencing. In the era of collateral consequences, however, this is no longer an adequate metric as it misses a world of bargaining that happens outside of the sentence. Through empirical research, this Article examines the measure of a good plea and the work that goes into negotiating such a plea. Through in-depth interviews with twenty-five public defenders in four states, I investigate the ways in which collateral consequences impact the negotiation of the plea. What emerges is a picture of creative plea bargaining that takes into account a host of noncriminal sanctions that fall outside of the charge and sentence. Public defenders assess the priorities of their clients — regarding both the direct and collateral consequences of the case — and piece together pleas that meet these varied needs. The length of sentence after a plea does not tell the full story about whether a defendant got a good deal because a successful plea now encompasses much beyond the final sentence.
These findings have broad implications for the way we think about assessing public defense offices and individual defenders. Much of what goes into a plea — particularly at the misdemeanor level — is a product of the client’s desire to avoid certain collateral consequences, and those desires generally do not enter the formal record or off-the-record negotiations with prosecutors. As a result, pleas that look bad on paper may actually be meeting the needs of the client. Therefore, in order to assess pleas and the defenders who negotiate them, we must understand the limits of publicly available data and focus on creating a more robust data set by which to judge public defenders. Additionally, this Article provides a fuller picture of prevailing professional norms at the plea phase after Padilla, Lafler, and Frye. As courts grapple with the role of the defense attorney during plea bargaining, it is critical that they understand that in many cases lawyers achieve optimal outcomes by providing advice and advocacy for their clients on concerns outside of the immediate criminal case. Finally, this Article serves as a renewed call for attention and funding for the holistic model of public defense.
Keywords: collateral consequences, plea bargain, public defense, prosecutors, negotiation, Padilla, Lafler, Frye, criminal law, criminal procedure
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