Consistent with this, reformers are exploring two avenues to make plea bargaining either more accountable or less common: The process could be altered to afford defendants more protection, or the jury trial could be simplified to ensure more people take advantage of this right.
“Plea bargaining in the United States is less regulated than it is in other countries,” said Jenia Turner, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who has written a book comparing plea processes in several U.S. and international jurisdictions. As a result, states are independently adopting measures to inject the process with more transparency here, more fairness there. In Connecticut, for example, judges often actively mediate plea negotiations, sometimes leaning in with personal opinion on an offer’s merit. In Texas and North Carolina, along with a few other states, both sides share evidence prior to a plea.
Turner suggests that replicating some of these practices across state lines, or standardizing the plea process nationally, could go a long way to equalizing the power between defendants and prosecutors. She also argues that agreements should be recorded in writing, and that sentencing discounts for pleading guilty should be nonnegotiable. In the United Kingdom, for instance, sentence reductions in exchange for a guilty plea follow strict schedules based on when the plea is entered.
There is no obvious recipe for fomenting this kind of reform. The drivers vary “greatly from one jurisdiction to the next,” Turner said. But she did concede one common thread that unites jurisdictions invested in changing the plea process: They must be motivated by some overarching values besides efficiency, “like seeking justice,” she said, “however that’s defined.”
The alternative to improved pleas is more trials. A half-step in this direction has long been practiced in Philadelphia, where bench trials—before a judge but no jury—are common. By avoiding the jury-selection process, known as voir dire, bench trials dramatically shorten the length of the proceedings while a defendant’s guilt must still be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In 2015, excluding cases that were dismissed, only 72 percent of criminal defendants in Philadelphia pled guilty, as opposed to 97 percent federally; 15 percent pursued a bench trial.
“The solution in Philadelphia is a very good one given the alternatives,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, the chief public defender for the city. “We firmly believe in putting evidence to the test and litigating cases. This program allows for far more trials than we see in other jurisdictions.”
John Rappaport, a law professor at the University of Chicago, proposes a more radical idea: If pretrial bargaining with the prosecutor is going to take place, it should embrace more than the basic exchange of guilt for leniency. Defendants should be able to bargain across the trial process itself, offering simplicity in exchange for a lesser charge. What if a defendant agreed to a trial before six or three jurors, instead of 12? Or what if the standards of evidence were downgraded, from beyond a reasonable doubt to a preponderance of the evidence?