A recent Pew Research Center study reveals that only 6% of state criminal prosecutions around the country go to trial. Plea bargains are even more common in the federal system with 97% of prosecutions being resolved in this way. Texas prosecutors like plea agreements because they are quick and straightforward and allow them to avoid the risks of arguing their cases before a jury, but civil rights advocates are disturbed by some of the tactics they use to obtain them.
Charge-stacking is one such tactic. This involves charging defendants with more serious crimes than their alleged conduct warrants and then offering to reduce charges in return for a plea deal. Prosecutors have also been known to threaten to indict friends and family members to prompt suspects to waive their right to a trial, but it is what is known as the trial penalty that usually provides the strongest motivation to plead guilty. Defendants are told in no uncertain terms that the penalties they will face after being convicted in court will be far more severe than what is on offer at the negotiating table.
Several studies have shown that coercive plea bargaining has led to innocent people being sent to prison. One in five wrongly convicted individuals makes a false confession according to the National Registry of Exonerations, but advocacy groups point out that these figures only reflect cases where innocence has been proved and the true number could be far higher.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys may suggest a plea agreement when the evidence against their clients is strong and the chances of prevailing at trial are slim. However, they could forego a negotiated settlement and advocate fiercely on behalf of their clients when rights protected by the Constitution may have been infringed or prosecutors have cases built on unreliable circumstantial evidence.