GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After decades of new laws to toughen sentencing for criminals, prosecutors have gained greater leverage to extract guilty pleas from defendants and reduce the number of cases that go to trial, often by using the threat of more serious charges with mandatory sentences or other harsher penalties.
Some experts say the process has become coercive in many state and federal jurisdictions, forcing defendants to weigh their options based on the relative risks of facing a judge and jury rather than simple matters of guilt or innocence. In effect, prosecutors are giving defendants more reasons to avoid having their day in court.
“We now have an incredible concentration of power in the hands of prosecutors,” said Richard E. Myers II, a former assistant United States attorney who is now an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina. He said that so much influence now resides with prosecutors that “in the wrong hands, the criminal justice system can be held hostage.”
One crucial, if unheralded, effect of this shift is now coming into sharper view, according to academics who study the issue. Growing prosecutorial power is a significant reason that the percentage of felony cases that go to trial has dropped sharply in many places.
Plea bargains have been common for more than a century, but lately they have begun to put the trial system out of business in some courtrooms. By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts.
Cases like Florida v. Shane Guthrie help explain why. After Mr. Guthrie, 24, was arrested here last year, accused of beating his girlfriend and threatening her with a knife, the prosecutor offered him a deal for two years in prison plus probation.
Mr. Guthrie rejected that, and a later offer of five years, because he believed that he was not guilty, his lawyer said. But the prosecutor’s response was severe: he filed a more serious charge that would mean life imprisonment if Mr. Guthrie is convicted later this year.
Because of a state law that increased punishments for people who had recently been in prison, like Mr. Guthrie, the sentence would be mandatory. So what he could have resolved for a two-year term could keep him locked up for 50 years or more.
The decrease in trials has also been a consequence of underfinanced public defense lawyers who can try only a handful of their cases, as well as, prosecutors say, the rise of drug courts and other alternative resolutions.
The overloaded court system has also seen comparatively little expansion in many places, making a huge increase in plea bargains a cheap and easy way to handle a near-tripling in felony cases over the past generation.
But many researchers say the most important force in driving down the trial rate has been state and federal legislative overhauls that imposed mandatory sentences and other harsher and more certain penalties for many felonies, especially those involving guns, drugs, violent crimes and repeat offenders.
Stiffer punishments were also put in place for specific crimes, like peddling drugs near a school or wearing a mask in certain circumstances. And legislators added reams of new felony statutes, vastly expanding the range of actions considered illegal.
These tougher penalties, by many accounts, have contributed to the nation’s steep drop in crime the past two decades. They have also swelled the prison population to levels that lawmakers in some states say they can no longer afford, and a few have rolled back some laws.
The ‘Trial Penalty’
In the courtroom and during plea negotiations, the impact of these stricter laws is exerted through what academics call the “trial penalty.” The phrase refers to the fact that the sentences for people who go to trial have grown harsher relative to sentences for those who agree to a plea.
In some jurisdictions, this gap has widened so much it has become coercive and is used to punish defendants for exercising their right to trial, some legal experts say.