Proponents believe such arrangements are necessary because justice is rarely black and white. The legal system needs to examine the shades of gray in each case, prosecutors and attorneys say, and plea bargaining gives them the discretion to do so.
Some say Danny Ramirez's trial is a case in point.
An autopsy revealed that the prowler he shot was intoxicated and had cocaine in his system. The victim had a history of violent, aggressive behavior when drunk. Witnesses said he was advancing threateningly toward Ramirez when the fatal shot was fired. The defendant, an undocumented worker, had not caused trouble with neighbors and had no felonies on his record.
"The case could and should have been negotiated," the defense attorney said.
But Jan C. Sturla, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, disagreed.
"It was the kind of case a jury should have decided," he said. "I wasn't going to offer him (the defense attorney) some necklaces and beads to get him to plead, just to avoid an adverse jury verdict. This was a tough case . . . and it's important to let the jury decide these cases because they, ultimately, are the conscience of the community."
Many prosecutors agree with Sturla, saying they would be delighted to bring more cases before juries. But they doubt that the public is willing to pay for the added jails, courtrooms, prosecutors, court-appointed attorneys, judges, bailiffs and clerks that would be needed.
"When someone says 'let's stamp out plea bargaining,' the key question is: 'Do you really want to pay for it?' " McDonald said. "There's a financial price for doing this, and I don't know if the public really understands what's involved."
In Los Angeles, there were 7,597 criminal defendants awaiting trial as of December, an increase of more than 1,000 over the previous year's total, according to court records. If the county suspended plea bargaining and tried to bring even more cases to trial, "it would be gridlock tomorrow," said Curt Livesay, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.
These warnings, however, have not discouraged other communities from attempting to restrict or ban plea bargaining.
In Alaska, the state attorney general announced the nation's first statewide crackdown on plea bargaining in 1975. That sparked a rise in the number of trials and a slight increase in the severity of sentences, particularly for lesser felonies.
Alaska's program has been viewed as a success, but critics say the state's relatively small number of felony cases--fewer than the number filed annually in some California counties--means that the system could not be transferred to the crowded courts of metropolitan areas.
El Paso, Texas, attempted to root out plea bargaining, but the experiment foundered when the courts were flooded with additional trials and could not cope with the added load. In New Orleans, plea bargaining in cases involving major felonies was banned several years ago, but only after the number of cases being filed was cut drastically.
One of the more sweeping efforts to limit plea bargaining occurred in California, when voters in 1982 overwhelmingly approved Proposition 8, the so-called Victim's Bill of Rights. One section of the measure prohibited plea bargaining in Superior Court cases involving serious felonies and was touted as a way to ensure tougher sentences for criminals.
Effect of Loopholes
However, the law contained loopholes that allowed plea bargaining to flourish, according to a 1986 report by the California attorney general.
One exception permits felonies to be plea bargained in Municipal Court before they are sent to Superior Court for trial. Others allow prosecutors to plea bargain serious felonies if there is insufficient evidence to prove the case, if the testimony of a key witness cannot be obtained or if a plea to reduced charges would not be substantially different from the outcome of a jury trial.
The last three exceptions are circumstances into "which most cases might fit, due to the nature of our securing witnesses and the proof that we have," said Livesay. In Los Angeles "Everyone in the system has their own reasons for liking plea bargaining," said Judge Adam Fine, a Milwaukee jurist who banned plea bargaining in his own court and has written on the subject. "For judges, plea bargaining means moving cases along efficiently. For prosecutors, it's also something that makes their work easier.
"It's also important for attorneys. Most criminals don't have the type of money that would support attorneys putting on a full-court press for trials. These attorneys need a high volume of cases, a lot of plea bargains, just to make a living."
Defenders of plea bargaining dismiss these arguments, saying the practice is grounded in the stark, day-to-day realities of the American legal system.
Hard to Prove