From the government’s perspective, plea bargaining has two advantages. First, it’s less expensive and time-consuming than jury trials, which means prosecutors can haul more people into court and legislators can add more offenses to the criminal code. Second, by cutting the jury out of the picture, prosecutors and judges acquire more influence over case outcomes.
From a defendant’s perspective, plea bargaining extorts guilty pleas. People who have never been prosecuted may think there is no way they would plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. But when the government has a “witness” who is willing to lie, and your own attorney urges you to accept one year in prison rather than risk a 10-year sentence, the decision becomes harder. As William Young, then chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, observed in an unusually blunt 2004 opinion, “The focus of our entire criminal justice system has shifted away from trials and juries and adjudication to a massive system of sentence bargaining that is heavily rigged against the accused.”