Should The Plea Bargain Reflect the Crime? A Debate in Ohio

The Sentencing Law & Policy blog recently highlighted a notable article about a push for a new criminal procedure rule concerning plea bargaining practices Ohio.

The article is headlined “Plea deals must reflect crime committed, judges demand,” and here are excerpts:

Judge Michael P. Donnelly had seen enough by the time his spreadsheet of plea deals in sexual-assault cases reached nearly 200. In each case, the defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser crime that bore no factual resemblance to what occurred, allowing many to avoid sex-offender registration requirements.

Many rape cases involved pleas to aggravated assault, a crime involving serious bodily harm in which the defendant was provoked by the victim — a scenario common in a drunken bar fight but wildly inconsistent with rape. “It’s sidestepping the truth. It’s legal fiction, nothing more than a lie,” said Donnelly, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge. “No one can defend this process. There is no ethical defense.”

With Donnelly leading the charge for change, the Ohio Supreme Court — unless legislators object — could amend court rules to require charges in felony plea deals to be factually based — to reflect what actually occurred. “Ending the charade” would promote transparency and foster public accountability in the justice system, Donnelly said. “We can be allowing pleas to something that everyone knows didn’t happen.”

The court’s rules commission has advanced the proposal by moving to seek public comment on the changes in Criminal Rule 11 as part of the early steps of a lengthy process leading to approval or rejection. The Ohio Judicial Conference, which represents the state’s judges, is on board with the change, calling “often convenient” plea agreements “contrary to the objectives of the justice system.”

Advocates for sexual-assault victims also support the change, saying pleas to lesser, unrelated offenses leave victims’ trauma unacknowledged and victims feeling “like the justice system let them down.”

Criminal-defense lawyers oppose the change, saying that it would unfairly limit their options in representing criminal defendants and could increase the number of cases going to trial. “While (plea deals) may be factually incorrect, from a justice perspective it is the right thing to do,” said Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young. “We have punishments that are not proportional to everyone who commits a crime because not every crime, while of the same name, is of the same nature.”

Barry Wilford, public-policy co-director of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, “Truth in plea bargaining is an easily stated expression, but it begs the question, ‘What is the truth?’  ” Prosecutors and defense lawyers, with the ultimate approval of judges, “have to have some freedom, some negotiating room. … There’s give and take by both sides. Each side has its objectives. The law should permit them that liberty,” Wilford said.

Donnelly’s study of 197 cases between 2008 and 2012 that resulted in plea agreements that he determined were not based on the facts represented only about 5 percent of the 3,700 sexual-assault cases handled in Cuyahoga County, an official said. “Sometimes, you take the sure thing to get someone off the street and hold them accountable,” said Joseph Frolik, spokesman for Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who took office in 2013.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien agrees with Donnelly that plea deals “should resemble what the conduct was.” He and his assistants work to base plea agreements on the factual circumstances of cases and preserve sex-offender registration, often by using lesser and included “attempted” offenses, such as attempted rape, he said. “It’s been on everyone’s radar for a number of years. Anyone who has been doing it to an improper degree probably already has changed that practice,” O’Brien said.

Greene County Common Pleas Judge Stephen A. Wolaver leads the Ohio Supreme Court’s criminal-rules committee and believes truth-in-plea-agreements should be adopted to foster public confidence in courts. “If you are going to handle a case based on the fact a person committed a crime, transparency says they should have committed that crime. If there is no fact basis for a particular crime, the question is raised, ‘Was there actually justice?’  ” Wolaver asked.

 

 

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