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Truth In Plea Bargaining

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When the Plea Bargain Doesn’t Jive with the Facts

Punishments should be proportionate to the crime, but what about the plea deal? Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Donnelly recently demanded that plea deals reflect the crime committed. Donnelly’s breaking point came when his plea deal spreadsheet for sexual assault cases reached 200. In every case, Donnelly said, the offender had agreed to a plea deal, pleading guilty to a lesser offense in order to avoid sex offender registration. The problem in these cases was, those “lesser offenses” bore no likeness to the act the defendant committed.

Rape Pleaded Down to Aggravated Assault

One of the more notable of the plea deals stemming from Donnelly’s list of sexual assault cases was rape pleaded down to aggravated assault. In Ohio, aggravated assault usually involves the victim provoking the defendant and is a common charges in instances of bar fights – not rape. Donnelly called this type of plea deal an absolute sidestepping of the truth, and he’s leading the charge to the Ohio Supreme Court to do something about it.

Factually Based Felony Plea Deals

Donnelly’s plea, the one he will make with the state’s Supreme Court, is that felony plea deals must be based in fact in order to be admissible. The Ohio Judicial Conference stands with Donnelly, saying plea deals that are not proportionate with the facts of the case are “contrary to the objectives of the justice system.”

Victims and victims’ rights groups are also among those who support the change, saying that allowing offenders to plead down their sexual assault offenses does not give victims closure, and can leave them feeling as if the justice system failed them.

On the Flip Slide

Many criminal defense lawyers, particularly public defenders, are opposed to the change, saying this would shift a heavy burden onto the already busy trial courts, as likely more cases would go to trial if plea options were limited.

Truth in plea agreements is certainly easier said than done, but does that mean it’s not worth it? Is settling cases before trial more important than factually based plea bargains? We’ll see what the Ohio Supreme Court decides.