Saturday, November 25, 2006
Ind. Decisions - More on "Court decisions ignite plea appeals"
Recent appeals court rulings on plea agreements tip the scales of justice away from the people of Indiana and toward criminal defendants, but solutions won’t be easy.
Some plea bargains call for a client to plead guilty and allow the judge to determine the sentence. Those are called “open” agreements. Most are “capped”: A defendant pleads guilty to a certain crime or crimes and receives a sentence that is either specific or within a limited range – with a cap on the number of years served in prison. A judge who believes the sentence is too lenient or harsh can reject it.
Although they are often decried, plea agreements have a role in the criminal justice system, and limiting the number of jury trials to lower expenses and unclog the courts is just one benefit. Prosecutors accept plea agreements for a variety of reasons, including reluctant witnesses, the quality of the evidence and the certainty of an agreed-upon sentence over the uncertainty of a jury’s verdict.
For their part, criminals usually enter into the plea agreements because the ultimate sentence is less than what they could have if convicted at trial. That’s the “bargain” part of a plea bargain.
But now, higher Indiana court rulings have made those sentences less certain, taking the “agreement” out of plea agreement. The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that convicted criminals may appeal sentences they agreed to serve. The rulings open the door to more appeals that cost taxpayers.
Defendants have a right to a fair process. When they believe the process has not been fair, they have a right to an appeal. But when they agree to a sentence to avoid something worse, appealing that sentence seems unfair. And it strikes at the heart of plea bargains, tilting the entire advantage to the defendant.
Still, there are no easy answers. There may be occasions when a defendant had a lousy attorney, one who did a poor job of explaining what the plea agreement truly meant, and a judge who did not make sure the defendant understood. Should those defendants be allowed to appeal?
The Huntington County prosecutor is now including a sentence in capped plea agreements stating that defendants are giving up their rights to an appeal, and the Allen County prosecutor’s office is moving in the same direction. But it is questionable whether that language would survive court tests, especially when appeals question whether the defendant really knew what the agreement meant.
Indiana lawmakers would serve Hoosiers well by examining the issue and adopting strict language that sets narrow circumstances for criminal defendants to appeal the sentences they had agreed to accept.