Defending theHuman Rightto a Fair Trial
February 9, 2016
Prior to the launch of a new campaign in the fall of 2016, this week we’ll be taking a look at what plea bargaining is, and where it poses a challenge to the right to a fair trial. Each day we’ll post a new story, fact sheet or guide, looking at who it affects, how it affects them and why we feel it is such an important global issue.
Today we are offering answers to various issues related to plea bargaining, including how it emerged, where it is used, the problems it poses and possible ways to reform it.
It is commonly believed that courts and trials guarantee the fairness of criminal justice systems. However, this view is outdated. The explosion of plea bargaining in the United States since the 1970’s means that “out of court” negotiations are now used to resolve 97% of federal cases in the US with no trial at all.
A plea bargain is a negotiated agreement offered by the prosecutor whereby a criminal defendant accepts their guilt and gives away their right to a trial, in exchange for some benefit from government, most likely a reduced sentence or dropping certain charges.
Plea bargaining was a rare practice in the United States’ criminal justice system until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It became a prominent way of making justice in the 1970’s, partly due to increased crime rates, urbanization, and heavy caseloads in US courts. By the late 1970’s, 90% of federal criminal cases did not reach the trial stage, as they were resolved through “out of court” plea deals. Today, that figure has gone up to 97%.
Plea bargaining is not exclusive to the US. This practice is actually spreading across the world (often with US sponsorship and funding), including in the European Union, Balkans, Africa, Latin America and the Caucasus. Nevertheless, plea bargaining adopts different forms throughout the world. In China, for instance, plea bargaining often directly translates into a loss of defendants’ rights.
Those in favor of plea bargaining point to the following reasons:
Decades of extensive use of plea bargaining in the US have made it clear that this practice is causing real problems affecting the lives of thousands.
Although plea bargaining may be beneficial to criminal justice systems in terms of efficiency and cost reduction, several issues need urgent reform. The following proposals aim to reform plea bargaining to ensure respect for fair trial rights:
Each day this week we will be covering a different aspect of plea bargaining, in anticipation of the launch of our new campaign in Fall 2016.
If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +44 (0) 7950 849 851.
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