The ‘Mass Production Of Guilty Pleas’ Is The Primary Purpose Of The Pre Trial Decisions. Discuss.
What is a guilty plea and how is it that the guilty pleas of defendants keep rising? Is it to do with mens rea? Or are they just doing as their told?
Firstly let’s establish what a plea is. A plea is a defendant’s formal answer in court to the charges that they are being accused of; this therefore makes a guilty plea a defendant’s acceptance of the charges that they are being accused of committing.
According to statistics the majority of defendants plead guilty in court. Stats show that sixty percent plead guilty in a crown court and ninety four percent plead guilty in a magistrate’s court.
From the above figures we can see that there is a lower ratio of guilty pleas in the crown compared to the magistrates. This is due to the crown court generally dealing with serious crimes such as murder and rape; therefore their sentencing powers are considerably high compared to the magistrate court. Another reason for the ratio of guilty pleas in crown courts being lower may be due to the crown court having higher sentencing powers compared to the magistrate’s court and therefore defendants may find that leading guilty wont be the best option for them.
From the figures we can also see that an astonishing ninety four percent of defendants that are tried in a magistrates court plead guilty. This is due to the magistrate court dealing with summary offences such as minor theft or driving offences. This also gives us an indication of their powers of sentencing and how they may well be summary just as their tried offences are. A summary offence trial is defined as one that has no weapons used and therefore cannot cause any serious injuries. This means that head butting and kicking has not been the means of assault. In the case of summary offences if any serious violence is caused towards a member of society working with the public such as police or bus drivers or taxi driver this will not be treated as a summary offence and therefore will most likely not be tried in a magistrate’s court.
It is extremely important for the defendant to understand the difference between the two courts (crown and magistrates) as negligence in this can result in a guilty plea of which they don’t understand the consequences of.
The powers of these two courts vary extremely regardless of the fact that they work together closely. The magistrate court for example has a maximum penalty of 5000 pounds and six months in prison for any one offence or twelve months with two offences which are triable either way (TEW). Also in a magistrates court the majority of the offences are not imprisonable at all and therefore there is a system of levels of the summary offences which correspond to a simple fine which the defendant will need to pay. These levels were put in place by criminal justice act 1982 to simplify the fining procedure in the magistrate court. The levels depend on the summary offence and they all have a particular fine. The levels are between one and five and level one being the lowest level has a maximum fine of up to 200 pounds. The offence of being drunk and disorderly for is example is a level three and has a maximum penalty of 1000 pounds.
To the contrary the crown court does not have structured penalty system in place as the magistrates court does. In fact the only option the crown court has for indictable offences such as murder, rape, blackmail, robbery and wounding with intent is life imprisonment. There are other maximum penalties for other offences such as discretionary life sentence or a simple term of years. Having looked at the powers of the two courts we can now understand what their role in the criminal justice system is, we can also understand why the crown court can not have a structures system of penalties like the magistrate court. We can clearly see that in a crown court there are major issues reflecting the outcome of penalty such as evidence, jury, actus reas (guilty act) and mens rea (guilty mind). Due to the possibility of a major injustice a system of penalties will not be a workable option for the crown court as the result can jeopardise a persons life to an extent worse then one which a magistrate court can achieve.
As mentioned previously it is crucial the defendant knows the difference between the two courts prior to them pleading guilty. I will now discuss the procedures that the suspect goes through in order to become a defendant and subsequently a convict.
When a suspect is arrested in suspicion of a crime they automatically become a defendant. This therefore gives the police the obligation by the due process model of law to provide the defendant with any details in regards to the charges against them and the right to legal representation. If the defendant requests for legal representation they will not be required to sit an interview until their solicitor has arrived. If the defendant is 17 or younger they will also need a legal adult to be present during police proceedings. Once the interview has taken place, depending on the severity of the offence the defendant/ solicitor may ask for bail. Bail can be rejected however reasons must be stated at time of rejection. The defendant also has a right to ask for a jury trial in a crown court if their case is triable either way (TEW).
A triable either way case is a case which can either be tried at a magistrate’s court or at a crown court. When an offence can be triable either way, the prosecution is obligated to give a copy of the summary, statement or any other evidence which they intend to rely on. This is a procedure done to see the intentions of the defendant as to whether if their pleading guilty or not guilty. Once the defendant and solicitor get a copy of the documents they get time to decide what they intend to do in regards to their plea. Defendant may know their intensions or may be confused, in some cases the defendant sometimes asks for an adjournment to decide on their plea.
At this stage the defendant will have already been told that in the result of a guilty plea they will be tried in a magistrate court and that only if the magistrate power is insufficient that the defendant will need to be retried in a crown court. They will also be told that if they plead not guilty or they are unwilling to plea at all, a mode of trial decision will be required.
A mode of trial decision is a procedure the prosecution takes in deciding on where the case should be tried. They do this by looking at the seriousness of the offence as well as the sentencing powers. The magistrates will look at the case and decide if they will have the power to sentence in the case of a conviction whilst considering the likeliness of the defendant to have committed the crime. If they decide that they do have the power, the clerk will inform the defendant of the trial mode decision and ask if they consent a summary trial or they want to elect trial by jury (crown court).
If the defendant asks for a summary trial they are asked to plead not guilty. In the case of the defendant asking for an elect trial by jury, the trial of the case will automatically be adjourned and therefore giving the defendant time to prepare for the trial. Another advantage of being tried in a crown court is the fact that a defendant is being tried in front of a jury and the case needing to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Due to the crown court trials being taken place in front of a jury, due to public confidence all proceedings are done in the open. The public get a say in the sentencing of the defendant and therefore given the right solicitor the defendant has a higher chance of acquittal, lighter sentence and even the possibility of a bail. This is one of the reasons for the defendants to plead not guilty at the magistrate’s court when faced with an option of being triable either way.
From reading above it is clear that the crown prosecution system like to know the intentions of the defendant. The decisions of the defendant however are manipulated and this is the reason for the substantial amount of guilty pleas in the criminal justice proceedings.
The defendants decision is manipulated through methods such as reduction principles or plea bargaining. I will now discuss what each of these are, and how they secure a guilty plea through the manipulation of defendants. A reduction principle is action of reducing a sentence significantly according to the timing of the guilty plea. It is applied to the sentencing using a method called the sliding scale discount which gives recommendations on when to plead guilty to get the lowest possible sentence. The recommendation states that the guilty plea of a defendant at the first reasonable opportunity will reduce the sentence by one third this is a drastic 33% reduction. In the case of the defendant pleading guilty after the trial date has been set the sliding scale discount still gives the defendant a recommended reduction of a quarter (25%) off their sentence. Even in the case of a guilty plea during the court session the defendant still gets a one-tenth reduction off of their sentence. In any of the above circumstances it is the judges’ duty to abide by the reduction principle however the final decision of the charge is up to the judge and the reduction is applied to the sentence that is given by the judge and jury.
Reduction principles apply to different types of sentences and not only to the timing of the sentence. Due to the nature of certain defendants such as the ones who have committed a murder there is no reduction principle this is due to the severity of the crime and the effects the reduction will make on publics confidence in the criminal justice system.
As mentioned above the reduction principle doesn’t only apply to timings and types of sentences. What this means is that it can also be applied in cases such as where a defendant has been given community service and due to them pleading guilty at the first reasonable opportunity their sentence which in this case is community service will be reduced to a fine. These types of incentives are not new to the criminal justice system and they are used on a regular basis to ensure defendants plead guilty this results in the reduction of cracked trials which are always good for the bureaucratic model of the criminal justice system.
As mentioned previously there is also another incentive to make pleading guilty sound appealing to defendants, this is called charge bargaining. Charge bargaining is an offering the prosecution makes to the defendant to secure a guilty plea. Like the reduction principle it is a good incentive to the defendant to plead guilty as the charge bargaining also reduced the charge the defendant is going to receive.
The Criminal Justice plays an important role in the outcome of the guilty pleas of defendants. It states that the courts must take into account the timing in which the guilty plea came into action to ensure that a guilty plea is not secured by an innocent just for the sake of getting a guilty plea.
In regards to charge bargaining, I will now discuss the types of charge bargaining and their effects during the sentencing process. The first I will describe is the case of a defendant having two separate trials and the prosecutor securing a guilty plea by eliminating the lesser charge to secure a guilty plea for the more serious crime. The second is again done to secure a plea but in a different way. In a case for example where a murder has been committed but the defendant is not pleading guilty, the prosecutor may offer a sentence for manslaughter if in return the defendant pleads guilty for that charge and the murder charges are dropped.
There are some advantages to the defendants pleading guilty in early stages such as the reduction of cracked trials as mentioned above. A cracked trial is a trial which reaches the crown court and is subsequently abandoned. This can be due to many reasons such as a late guilty plea or factors that effect the trial such as witnesses not turning up etc. Though these types of bargaining are not praised they are definitely beneficial to the criminal justice systems bureaucratic model, as the costs are significantly reduced and the crown courts get a chance to deal with the more serious cases. There are also many disadvantages to the system used to obtain guilty pleas from defendants such as the plea bargaining procedure clearly being a crime control model of justice and therefore people who take the side of the due process model of innocent until proven guilty are most likely not going to be satisfied.
Looking at the types of options given to defendants we can see that some of the options may be beneficial to some such as murderers being tried for manslaughter but we are not considering the whole society such as innocent people getting arrested and pleading guilty just because they are believed to have been caught and feel that pleading guilty is the only way out.
Having systems such as charge bargaining and reduction principles in place may seem practical in theory but practical doesn’t mean right, that is the problem which the Criminal justice system; it doesn’t matter if things are not right as long as they seem practical their content.
Malcolm D, et al, (2005) ‘Criminal justice’ an introduction to the criminal justice system in England & Wales, Pearson education
Ashworth A, et al, (2005), ‘The Criminal Process’ third edition, Oxford, Oxford university press
Maguire, M ,et al, (2007), ‘The Oxford Handbook of criminology’ united states, oxford university press
Figures obtained from lectures notes
Information on cracked trials from – http://220.127.116.11/search?g=cache:6GBE1rAXxswj:www.dca.gov.uk/magist/pn_jpm_eval.htm+cracked+trial&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=uk
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