FYI: Explaining plea bargains

December 5, 2023

The jury box at the Mason County Courthouse

FYI: Explaining plea bargains

FYI is a series that discusses how things work in our lives here in Mason County. Click here to see past articles. 

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

Covering the events of the criminal courts is one of the staples of local news coverage. In this age of social media it’s very common for the comments on a Facebook post to lean toward questioning why a plea bargain (or plea deal) is made.

“Why even make a plea deal?” is a common comment.

So, let’s clarify what this means.

In the United States a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. Just because they have been arrested/arraigned does not mean they are automatically guilty.

This means they have the right to a trial.

In the state of Michigan, specifically here in Mason or Oceana counties, a person who is arrested by the police is first arraigned in front of the district court magistrate. Michigan does not have a certain time limitation before someone arrested by the police must be arraigned (brought before a judge so the bond can be determined). However, Michigan Court Rule 6.104 states, “Unless released beforehand, an arrested person must be taken without unnecessary delay before a court for arraignment.”

An arraignment does not necessarily mean a criminal defendant will go to jail. Depending on the nature of the charges, it is possible to be released on a personal, surety, cash or 10% bond during the pendency of a criminal case.

Most defendants will “stand mute” at an arraignment. When the accused stands mute, the judge will enter a not guilty plea on their behalf. However, and this is a pretty rare occurrence, the accused can plea guilty at this time.

In the case of a felony, once bond has been set, a probable cause conference is scheduled. This is typically a meeting that takes place in private between the prosecutor and defense attorney. Following that conference, a preliminary examination is held. During this examination, the prosecution presents its case — in open court — in front of the district court judge to determine if there is enough evidence (probable cause) to send the case to circuit court, which handles felony cases. Typically the case proceeds to circuit court.

In circuit court, a pretrial conference is held — in open court — in front of the judge. Typically, at this time the prosecution will offer a plea agreement. A plea agreement is a negotiation of an agreement between the prosecution and the defense whereby the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense or (in the case of multiple offenses) to one or more of the offenses charged in exchange for more lenient sentencing, recommendations, a specific sentence, or a dismissal of other charges.

A view of the main courtroom at Mason County Courthouse

The agreement must be made within sentencing guidelines that are established by the state legislature (for the purposes of this article we are discussing state crimes not federal crimes).

The defense has the right to accept the plea agreement, which means that he/she pleads guilty or to reject it, which is pleading not guilty. The judge also has the right to accept or reject the agreement and also establish sentencing based on state statutes.

The local courts do not have the time, personnel or financial resources to have a trial for every single case. Additionally, a plea deal doesn’t necessarily mean that the defendant is getting a sentencing that would be nay less if he/she had gone to trial.

An an example of this is a case that MCP posted last week where the 63-year-old defendant has been offered a plea deal to serve a term of 37 to 80 years in prison for first-degree home invasion, assault with intent to commit sexual penetration, assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, assault with a dangerous weapon, and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC). He is also a fourth time habitual offender. The maximum penalty for first degree CSC is life in prison. If he were to go to trial, there’s no guarantee that the judge would sentence him for any penalty differently than the sentencing under the terms of the plea agreement. Besides, he’s 63 years old. A minimum of 37 years in prison means he would be 100 years old when he’s eligible for release.

It’s tempting to think of plea bargains as one-sided deals in which society and victims are the only ones who give something up (i .e., the possibility of a longer sentence).  But that’s not quite accurate.  Because an accused person’s right to trial, right to a jury, and right to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt are ancient liberties guaranteed by the United States and state constitutions, defendants also waive and give up some of their own constitutional rights in plea deals.

What’s the alternative to a plea bargain? It’s a jury trial.

Adult citizens in the U.S., with few exceptions, are required under law to report to jury duty when called. Are you prepared to serve on jury duty a few times a year?

Jury duty is currently the only compulsory duty required in the United States. There are 25,242 registered voters in Mason County and 22,195 in Oceana County. On any given week, there are typically at least 12 felony cases in front of the circuit court judge in both counties. The 51st Circuit Court covers both Mason and Oceana counties and is served by one judge. A trial can last anywhere from three days to two weeks. Are you ready to serve jury duty two or three times a year?

Something else to consider. A local attorney pointed out to me that in the cases of sexual assault involving minors, in a trial that minor child will have to testify against the assailant. A plea deal means that child does not have to go through that trauma again.

Let’s talk about the American and Michigan justice system for a minute.   

Amendment 6 of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

Further, the 14th Amendment states: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Michigan’s Revised Judicature Act of 1961 (Act 236 of 1961) establishes the qualifications of a juror; exemptions; and effect of payment for jury service.

To sum up, a plea bargain doesn’t necessarily mean that the defendant is getting a better deal than if he/she were to have gone to trial. Further, eliminating or reducing plea bargains means more citizen engagement through jury duty and far more tax dollars spent on trial.

Lastly, if any of the above information doesn’t resinate, let me ask you this: have you ever sat in the seats in the jury box of the Mason County Courthouse? Take a look at the photo at the top of this article and consider the discomfort of the seats in the county’s historical 130 year old courthouse.

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