Criminal Justice: Plea Bargaining

The Economist January 26th 2013

Criminal Justice and the Courts

Thumb on the scale

How mandatory minimum sentences distort plea bargaining:

“…Plea bargains…have long been part of the American legal system.  In theory they work to the benefit of all parties.  The defendant admits his guilt and gets a lighter sentence;  the prosecutor notches up a win; and the curt is spared the time and cost of holding a trial.    The reality is far murkier.”

One of the problems for this kind of bargaining is the legacy of the “drug war”: mandatory minimum sentences.  “From 1990 to 2010 the number of federal defendants whose conviction carries at least one mandatory minimum sentence has more than tripled, from 6,685 to 19,896.  Intended to ensure fairness and reduce variation in sentencing between jurisdictions, mandatory minimums have instead, in effect, transferred discretion from judges to prosecutors…

“Prosecutors will always wield a great deal of power in the American criminal system; but before a defendant agrees to plead guilty, he ought to know whether the state holds four aces or a busted flush.”

Four aces is the highest hand in poker.  A flush is five cards of the same suit, but not necessarily in sequence. If in sequence the player has a straight flush.  A busted flush is one in which the player expects to get a flush, but isn’t dealt the right card.  

From Wikipedia:

  1. (UK, poker) A potential flush which ultimately was not filled.
    I thought I’d draw another spade, but I ended up with a busted flush.
  2. (UK, idiomatic) Anything which ends up worthless despite great potential [quotations ▼]

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