Prosecutors Desk 7-31-16
I have been asked why we ever let someone plead to something that carries less punishment than all that could be charged. They felt that offering anything less than everything that could be charged was somehow letting the defendant get away with something.
The process of bargaining with a defendant is common to the criminal justice system. It is necessary because it allows the resolution of many more cases that could be resolved through the trial process. If all cases were to go to trial, the system would not function. There are simply more cases than there is time or resources to use a jury to resolve the cases.
Another factor involved is that if a defendant will accept responsibility for what he or she did, there is a reward, which benefits both the state and the defendant. The prosecution gains by being able to focus resources toward other matters and the defendant gains by being held responsible for somewhat less than everything possible.
The level of responsibility that we insist a defendant take is based on our assessment of the strengths and weakness of the evidence. We also consider the amount of effort it will take to try the case, the nature and extent of the harm that was done, the existence of legal defenses, the likelihood of conviction, the possible punishment that will be imposed and the possible issues for appeal. We take into account the family and/or victim’s wishes but there wishes do not control the process.
The court approves of this process of negotiation to resolve cases, but the court is not involved. Judges are informed of the reason why the resolution is different from the charging documents and why the case is resolving in that way, but Judges are never under any obligation to accept a plea as bargained, nor are they bound by the sentencing recommendations if any are made. The Judge must be satisfied that what is happening is fair and just and there is a basis for the judgment.
The reality is that there are not enough resources in the criminal justice system to try each and every case to a jury. This would take more judges, more courts, more jurors, more laboratories, more jails, more prisons, and more attorneys, and more of everything else. Mainly, it would take more money and we do not have this available because there is no political will in the legislature to ask the citizens of Washington to pay more taxes.