Concept of Plea Bargaining

Subject: Law
Pages: 7
Words: 1688
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


Most people are not familiar with the reality of legal issues today, the truth is that plea bargains are relatively more common than trial cases in the court which can be traced from time immemorial. Indeed, statistics present today clearly indicate that about 90% of all unlawful convictions are mostly obtained through plea bargain and this fact can be proved by studying the history of the plea bargain system (Fisher, 2004). In fact, the plea bargain system has been a typical method of processing cases in the courts quickly, and because the process is efficient it has been relied as the standard way in securing convictions for at least the last 100 years (Fisher, 2004). According to the policy of plea bargain this form of arrangement cannot be altered once the court makes the final ruling (Fisher, 2004). In this paper, I will discuss the concept of plea bargaining; I will also analyze and discuss the historical origins on the use of plea bargain as a common phenomenon in the legal system.

Understanding Plea Bargain

McConville & Mirsky (2005) points that plea bargain also known as plea deal is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant. It is a situation in which the prosecutor offers the defendant an opportunity to plead guilty for a particular crime, more often to a lesser charge. Alternatively, plea bargain cases may also involve a situation in which the prosecutor makes an agreement with the defendant to plead guilty to a crime committed but the prosecutor agrees to charge the particular defendant with a less severe sentence than what is mostly associated with the offence (McConville & Mirsky, 2005). For instance, a person who has committed murder may enter into this form of an agreement and the prosecutor will reduce the original charge of murder probably to manslaughter case which obviously has a less charge compared to murder case.

Cases of plea bargains are common across the world and they have existed for a long time. On the other hand, plea bargain involves making an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant for mutual benefit. The prosecutor is eased on the burden of dealing with the particular case considering the busy schedule that they have to deal with other cases while the defendant also enjoys the advantage of having a reduced or lesser charge especially if one is really guilty (McConville & Mirsky, 2005). However, it may be very disadvantageous to a defendant since an innocent person may be pressured into this form of an agreement in which he is made to believe that by agreeing to plead guilty they will benefit.

Emergence of plea bargain

Before the emergence of plea bargain concept, the prosecutors made unofficial arrangement with the defendants and their attorneys to plead responsibility to a particular crime while the prosecutor would influence the ruling for a lesser charge (Fisher, 2004). However, the formal agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant was aimed at making the accused plead guilty while the court agreed to hand down a lesser charge to the defendant.

Plea bargain system emerged as a mean of survival in the criminal justice system where prosecutors saw the need to facilitate court proceedings and solve issue of pending cases in an efficient manner in order to save time. At Old Bailey for instance, “the jury tried twelve to twenty cases per day” (Padgett, 1985); however, this was not sufficient enough to deal with lot of pending cases and so there was great need to develop a system that would ensure that the jury solved many cases in a day. It was until 1794 when one case lasted for more than a day at the Old Bailey when the panel of judges saw the need to address this challenge (Padgett, 1985). After considering many options the Old Bailey’s commission ruled out that the defendant was the only witness with the ultimate truth regarding a case; so the arrangement between the prosecutor and the defendant emerged in which the defendant would agree to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge.

As it turned out between the year 1780 and 1900 the law of plea bargain was developed and has since evolved little by little to what it is today (Padgett, 1985). The concept of plea bargain started being implemented in settling small crimes like selling of liquor and so on. This policy allowed the prosecutor to arrange non-judicial outcomes for charges of dispensing liquor illegally in the 1780s and early 1800; in this case county prosecutors developed a method where multiple charges for selling liquor without license would be reduced to one charge which would lead to a predetermined fine and related court costs (Chemerinsky & Levenson, 2008).

However, after the emergence of this policy there were many challenges and even after defendant pleaded guilty to an offence they would still be charged with serious crimes that they would be deemed to have committed (Padgett, 1985). This implied that the law was not effective at the beginning in enforcing this concept but since the policy of plea bargain had facilitated the court proceedings, the policy was amended step by step and since then it has evolved to become more efficient. Therefore, plea bargaining has been there for a very long time and had been used to help reduce the amount of time and money that the prosecutor would spend on the same case during trial. In white collar crimes the government would use defendants through plea bargains to get to the big fish by giving suspected persons lenient punishment compared to what would have been received. In current and earlier statutes the charge for homicide has usually been life imprisonment or death but prosecutors have traditionally allowed defendants to plead guilty to lesser charge of manslaughter which doesn’t carry a life sentence (Padgett, 1985).

As we have observed, the plea bargain can be traced back before the 19th century when public prosecution was developed (Fisher, 2004). Later, the judges began to appreciate the workload relief brought by the plea bargaining system. There have been a lot of ideas concerning when plea bargaining started in America because some people claim it is a new invention while there is evident that cases of plea bargain had taken place a hundred years ago. Earlier on, prosecutors gave lenient charges on those defendants who cooperated during the process to make sure that the court proceedings took less time than was the case before (Padgett, 1985).

Plea bargain has undergone a lot of evolution in the US and other parts of the world and is believed to be an outcome of the industrialization process. For instance in 1931 Mr. Al Capone through plea bargaining got a less sentence for pleading guilty to tax evasion and not adhering to tax policies (Chemerinsky & Levenson, 2008). However, he later bragged about it and was charged afresh and sentenced to seven and half years in prison; this indicated that by this time the court was not bound by the plea bargain agreements. Again in 1969 “James Ray pleaded guilty to assassination of Martin Luther King Jr” to avoid execution but was instead sentenced to 99 years in prison (Padgett, 1985). It has been documented that there were fewer people agreeing to plea bargain in the 1900’s compared to modern era due to lack of trust among the parties involved.

Development of plea bargain across nations

The current state of the plea bargain in the world today is the result of an evolution process in the legal thinking. Before the emergence of plea bargain in the criminal justice system most courts seemed to ignore its concept. In fact, in many nations plea bargain was regarded as a “lazy form of prosecution that resulted in undue leniency for offenders” (Chemerinsky & Levenson, 2008). For instance, in the republic of India the concept of plea bargain was not very popular. However, in section 208 (1) of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 stipulated by the constitution of India, the law allowed individuals to plead guilty for a lesser charge (Fisher, 2004). All the same, the government did not take this rule seriously and therefore introduction of the plea bargain initially faced resistance.

To emphasize this point, the court in the case of “Kachhia Patel Shantilal Koderlal v. State of Gujarat” (Chemerinsky & Levenson, 2008) did not at all approve the plea bargain system and argued that the concept was not legal. In its disapproval, the Supreme Court ruled that the process would encourage malpractices such as corruption. However, the Law Commission of India campaigned for the introduction of plea bargain in a report which the commission stated that this concept was a positive step in the criminal justice system. The commission also argued that the concept of plea bargain had been very successful in other nations particularly in US and therefore it should be accepted (Chemerinsky & Levenson, 2008). For this reason the recommendation was that the concept of plea bargain be applied as an experiment for only those crimes whose sentences were not more than seven years.


In summary, plea bargain system is a development of the criminal justice system that has evolved originally as the solution to the Old Bailey court challenges and the need to expediently deal with cases coming before it and consequently save time and resources. It is also evident that plea bargain is a concept that has gradually evolved over many years, probably over three centuries to finally become what it is today. Noteworthy to mention is that during its evolution the plea bargain system was not initially accepted as ethical for judicial purposes and it therefore faced resistance across the world. However, as countries started embracing it and integrating it in their judicial system especially in US, it became more refined and even more appropriate for its intended purposes since the courts also increasingly become very congested with cases that required arbitration. It is thus not surprising that majority of cases are currently solved through plea bargain process across the world since it is fast, effective and economical in settling cases.


Chemerinsky, E. & Levenson, L. (2008). Criminal Procedure. Amsterdam: Aspen Publishers.

Fisher, G. (2004). Plea bargain triumph: A history of plea bargain in America. Washington: Stanford University Press.

McConville, M. & Mirsky, C. (2005). Jury trials and plea bargaining: a true history. Washington: Hart Publishing.

Padgett, J. (1985). The Emergent Organization of Plea Bargaining. The American Journal of Sociology, 90 (4), pp. 753-800.