Repost from the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, “Guest post on the Fourth Circuit’s reaction to district judge’s rejection of plea bargains”:
In prior posts here and here I noted the quite notable opinions by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin explaining why he was rejecting plea bargaining in fairly routine cases. Professor Suja A. Thomas, Peer and Sarah Pedersen Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, who is a leading scholar on juries and has written the leading book on the topic, was kind enough to put together this guest post about the Fourth Circuit’s recent opinion in one of these cases:
By rejecting plea bargains, Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia has been challenging the prevalent use of plea-bargaining in the federal courts. Judge Goodwin began to do so in 2017 in United States v. Walker when he issued an opinion rejecting a plea bargain in a case involving heroin-dealing (discussed here). He said he would continue to reject plea deals as long as the plea bargain wasn’t in the public’s interest. True to his word he has rejected pleas in other cases including United States v. Stevenson and United States v. Wilmore. Late last month in US v. Walker, No. 18-4110 (4th Cir. April 29, 2019), the Fourth Circuit issued its first opinion addressing Judge Goodwin’s rejection of pleas.
The facts of Walker are significant. The government presented a deal for a plea to a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin. It recommended 24 to 30 months. The court rejected the plea deal and ultimately as a result of pleading guilty to three distribution counts plus a jury conviction on a gun count, the defendant received four times as much — 120 months in prison.
In Walker, Judge Goodwin described four considerations in whether a plea bargain agreement should be accepted: “(1) ‘the cultural context surrounding the subject criminal conduct’; (2) ‘the public’s interest in participating in the adjudication of the criminal conduct’; (3) the possibility of ‘community catharsis’ absent the transparency of a jury trial; and (4) whether, in light of the [presentence report], it appeared that the ‘motivation’ for the plea agreement was ‘to advance justice’ or to ‘expediently avoid trial.’” 922 F.3d 239, 245 (4th Cir. 2019). In rejecting the plea bargain there, the judge discussed how West Virginia had been “deeply wounded by … heroin and opioid addiction,” explained the public’s significant interest in this issue, described the importance of the jury’s determination of this matter, and concluded that the plea agreement had been improperly motivated by convenience. Id. at 245-46.
While the Fourth Circuit addressed Judge Goodwin’s rejection of plea bargaining, the opinion is disappointing. In upholding his decision, it focused on only Judge Goodwin’s analysis of the defendant’s criminal history and violence. And it suggested that Judge Goodwin’s broader considerations such as the cultural context of the offenses were irrelevant. Similarly, in concurrence, Judge Niemeyer stated that the court would have abused its discretion if it had rejected plea bargaining based on the government’s frequent use for the reason of convenience. Id. at 254.
The Fourth Circuit missed an opportunity. It could have addressed some of the problems tagged by Judge Goodwin — that constitutionally-enshrined juries decide few cases and that the courts accept plea bargaining as necessary for efficiency — despite no constitutional backing for this proposition.
With that said, I recognize that Judge Goodwin’s actions resulted in a black defendant being sent to prison for much more time than the prosecution wanted — continuing to contribute to the problem of mass incarceration. Additionally, a jury had some role but did not decide all counts. Though one can argue that the Judge’s action in rejecting plea bargains is far from a perfect solution, whether you agree with the Judge or not, he has taken a bold, very courageous step of questioning our continued reliance on the system of plea bargaining.
And I share some views with Judge Goodwin. I value the role that the jury was to play in the criminal justice system under the Constitution. Plea coercion, as I like call it, occurs in approximately 97% of federal cases. Most of the time the defendant is given a false choice — receive a discount for pleading guilty or receive a penalty for going to trial. The obvious result is the system that we have now. No one takes a jury trial; the penalty is too great. In a book and elsewhere, I have argued that this system is unconstitutional. Historically a penalty was not attached to a jury trial. A defendant received the same sentence if he pled guilty or if he was convicted before a jury.
The Harvard Law Review summarized and critiqued Judge Goodwin’s opinion in Walker. 131 Harv. L. Rev. 2073 (2018). Although an interesting analysis including a discussion of the significant impact on the defendant, the authors missed the mark when they simply stated plea bargaining is “a systemic problem that cannot be convincingly addressed by the actions of a single judge.” Id. at 2078. They did not recognize that systemic change often begins with a single person challenging the status quo. The judge has already sparked national media coverage and other significant discussions about plea bargaining.
With that said, what will the government do in the future in Judge Goodwin’s courtroom? It seems like the defendant and the government will get around Judge Goodwin’s rejection of the plea deal by privately agreeing in advance to the plea. Hopefully, the needed attention to the problems with plea-bargaining will not end there