This article contends that two recent Supreme Court decisions concerning the assistance of counsel in plea bargaining do not warrant the hype bestowed upon them by professors and the press. Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye did not significantly change the law, and even if these decisions had been bolder, they could not have done much to make effective legal assistance more likely. Our plea-bargaining system both subjects defense attorneys to serious temptations to disregard their clients’ interests and makes it impossible to determine whether defendants have received effective assistance.
Much of the article focuses on a partly empirical, partly jurisprudential issue that divided the majority and dissenting justices: Does plea bargaining reward defendants who plead guilty or instead penalize those who stand trial? The author of the principal dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia, maintained that plea bargaining enables defendants “to serve less time than the law says [they] deserve.” Justice Kennedy responded for the majority that defendants “who take their case to trial and lose receive longer sentences than even Congress or the prosecutor might think appropriate, because the longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes.”
The article contends that the issue can be resolved and that the majority has it right. America did not achieve the world record for mass incarceration by giving 95% of all convicted offenders less punishment than they deserve. Indeed, no sane nation would be likely to sentence 95% of its convicts to less than they deserve or than effective deterrence requires. This nation would be far more likely to impose additional punishment on a small minority to save the cost of trials. It’s no coincidence that the nation most dependent on plea bargaining is also the nation that incarcerates the highest proportion of its population. By lowering the cost of imposing criminal punishment, plea bargaining has given America more of it.
The Lafler-Frye majority disregarded the implications of its position when it declared plea agreements beneficial to both parties. If post-trial sentences are imposed simply for the purpose of inducing guilty pleas (as the Supreme Court recognizes five-to-four), plea bargaining benefits both parties only in the sense that a gunman’s demand for your money or your life benefits you as well as the gunman. Proposals commonly are treated as coercive when refusing them would leave recipients worse off than they ought to be.
Along the way, the article considers what plea agreements should look like in a system that does what bargaining prosecutors and defense attorneys acknowledge (and boast) that they do, and it criticizes David Abrams’ empirical conclusion that plea bargains really aren’t bargains at all.