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Why plea bargains can be a deal with the devil

The plea bargain is a deal with the devil — at least according to many members of the public. The public may be right, but the real question is: Just who is the devil in the plea bargain equation?

Let’s first take a step back and go over some basics.

In 1975, the Law Reform Commission of Canada defined a plea bargain as "any agreement by the accused to plead guilty in return for the promise of some benefit."

The essence of any plea bargain is a quid pro quo.

So the quid: The accused gives up their constitutional right to be presumed innocent and waives their right to a trial. In other words, the accused relieves the state of the heavy obligation of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

After all, there is only one guarantee in criminal law — if you plead guilty you will be found guilty.

And the quo: The accused receives the benefit of reduced charges, or less jail time or some measure of certainty about the ultimate sentence.

But it is not just the accused and the prosecution who benefit from guilty pleas. Plea bargaining is an essential lubricant in the justice system.

Recently, in R. v. Anthony-Cook, the Supreme Court of Canada described plea agreements as “vitally important to the well-being of our criminal justice system,” without which the justice system would “eventually collapse under its own weight.”

So, everyone wins — unless you are the innocent accused who is induced into pleading guilty.

The Criminal Code recognizes the fundamental importance that all admissions of guilt are fully voluntary. Before a court can accept a guilty plea, the judge must be satisfied that the accused is acting under their own free will. There is no arm twisting allowed in a plea court.

But all actors in the justice system turn a blind eye to all the subtle arm twisting that takes place outside the courtroom. In reality, many guilty pleas are not truly voluntary.

There is a massive power imbalance between the state and the accused. The state has an army of fully funded prosecutors, investigators and forensic experts. The state is never unrepresented in court, unlike so many impoverished accused. As a starting point, the playing field is far from level.

There are also perverse incentives that many prosecutors can unwittingly leverage to extract guilty pleas.

Take, for example, the case of a homeless accused who is charged with shoplifting. It is all too common for this type of offender to be warehoused in jail, unable to make bail. After a week in Dickensian jail conditions, the man is presented with two options:

Option one: Plead guilty and walk out of jail today.

Option two: Plead not guilty and spend three months in jail waiting for a trial.

How can any plea in these circumstances be truly voluntary?

Imagine this example: A father is charged with manslaughter in the death of his infant child. The father says he is innocent, but the Crown retains a respected and world-renowned expert who concludes that the child died of shaken baby syndrome. The Crown tells the devastated father that it will seek a lengthy penitentiary sentence if he is found guilty after trial — the father will lose his family, his job and a decade of his life.

But there is a deal to be had.

If the father pleads guilty, the Crown will agree to drop the charge from manslaughter to aggravated assault and will agree to only a six-month jail sentence.

This was the real-life choice faced by Richard Brant. He took the deal. Was there really a choice?

It turned out that the world-renowned expert in Brant’s case was a man now known to be responsible for scores of wrongful convictions — disgraced former pathologist Charles Smith. In 2011 — 15 years after Brant pleaded guilty — the Ontario Court of Appeal found that a miscarriage of justice had occurred and entered an acquittal.

Here’s one more example. A hard-working, pro-social and otherwise loving husband is charged with domestic mischief. It is alleged that during an argument he grabbed his wife’s phone and smashed it. A neighbour called the police.

Perhaps he was actually guilty or perhaps it was all a misunderstanding.

His wife does not want to press charges, but once the police are called, it is not her choice. The husband is released from jail on bail, but, despite the wishes of his wife, he is not allowed to contact her in any way. He can’t move back home or see his children. The family’s finances are stretched. The husband is renting an apartment and waiting for his trial (with all the safeguards and fact-finding that such a process entails), but that trial is set for a year away.

He can’t afford a lawyer, so he asks the Crown to agree to vary his bail conditions so he can move home.

This is what everyone wants.

A frequent response from the Crown is: If you plead guilty, we will agree that you can move home. If you don’t plead guilty, there will be no agreement.

These are the types of inducements that lead to wrongful convictions and questionable guilty pleas:

release from jail, shorter sentence, reduced charges, contact with family and on and on and on.

In 2009, when Brant’s appeal was filed at the Court of Appeal, Justice Michael Code (he was a law professor at the time) called these questionable plea situations the “hidden underbelly of the justice system.”

Defence counsel can be tempted to assist their clients to take the easy way out and make these types of deals. And it is the easy way out — fighting is harder, more stressful and more costly.

Make no mistake, there are some defence counsel who value a quick plea over a complicated trial.

But also make no mistake, increased responsibility must fall on the shoulders of our Crown attorneys to ensure that discretion is exercised appropriately and there are no improper inducements.

After all, it is the Crown who holds the balance of power in most plea negotiations. It is the Crown who has the power to agree to a reduced sentence, drop charges, modify facts and modify bail conditions.

With greater power there also must come greater responsibility.

So to answer the question: The inherent power imbalance between the state and the accused provides a pretty powerful indication on who the devil is in most plea deals.

  • The Justice System Stinks !!

    name withheld
    The whole plea bargain system stinks. An accused either enters a guilty plea to get out of jail or get a reduced sentence even if they are NOT guilty. If an accused in custody elects for a trial it is usually a MINIMUN of 6 months in the future and that is BEFORE the Crown initiates a number of delays: Oh sorry my witness is sick today, etc, etc, etc. So the accused simply goes back to jail until finally the case is heard. Even if the accused is on bail usually the bail conditions are so stringent that the Police can often find a way to "breach" the accused in which case he is likely placed back in jail because now he is a " risk to the public" If the accused has a legal aid lawyer that person is usually swamped with cases or is inexperienced and has no chance against a more experienced crown. If the accused has a paid lawyer his fees are generally very high and even if he/she are acquitted they have already served substantial jail time even though they were in effect innocent. " gee that's too bad " says the crown and usually the public too. There is no compensation for either the time spent in prison or the accused's lawyer bills. So if the average person thinks the justice system is fair they are sadly mistaken. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Check out the You Tube channel by " Not So Silent" and you will see examples of how unfair the system really is.
  • Observer

    John Law
    Mr. Spratt has dusted off his non-existent homeless shoplifter again. Anyone in the criminal justice system knows that such a person would be diverted, or at worst, fined if it's a small theft. I also enjoyed his Trumpian "a frequent response from the Crown is..." All the accusation, with none of those pesky facts to weigh it down.

    If only there was some safeguard against innocent people pleading guilty. Oh wait, there is: defence lawyers. If they are willing to stand next to a person while he lies to the court and wrongfully convicts himself, they are at least as big a problem. Lawyers who knowingly plead innocent clients guilty should be ashamed of themselves; they do their profession and their clients a horrible disservice by exploiting them in that way.

    Once again, no thought whatsoever is given to the notion that just maybe, responsibility for justice lies with all of us.
  • That pesky defence lawyer

    Samantha L.
    I strongly disagree with this comment.

    The "homeless shoplifter" example cited in this article is prevalent in our system. This situation arises when an innocent person with a lengthy criminal record is not seen to be releasable on bail, and would have served their sentence (often in gross excess) by the time the matter would be brought to trial. It is no secret as well that several criminal matters are not reaching their conclusions in a timely fashion, which of course aggravates this issue.

    While I am a relatively new addition to the bar, I can tell you anecdotally that the situation described above happens all too often. For fear of being labelled "Trumpian", if you need me to cite examples, I would be more than happy to oblige.

    With respect Professor, I question how you are situated to provide commentary on such matters.
  • between a rock and a hard place

    Karen Stevan
    The point in the article is that the price of maintaining innocence could be the loss of liberty, family, career. I have seen prosecutors put enormous pressure on a person struggling to put forward a defence, using adjournments to drag out a proceeding, requiring multiple court attendances to drain finances, refusing to consider alternate remedies. A plea bargain under these circumstances may be a barbed lifeline and not an outcome based on responsibility and reckoning.