What happened in the Supreme Court case Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 261 (1971)? Why, even though the Supreme Court had ruled that plea bargaining was an essential and desirable part of...

What happened in the Supreme Court case Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 261 (1971)? Why, even though the Supreme Court had ruled that plea bargaining was an essential and desirable part of the criminal justice system, did the Attorney General of Alaska, Avrum Gross, order an end to all plea bargaining in 1975?

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stevepomper eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Santobello v. New York is a U. S. Supreme Court case concerning a defendant who’d agreed to a plea bargain after which he pleaded guilty only to have the trial judge negate the plea and sentence the defendant to the maximum. Having disallowed the plea bargain, the trial judge did not allow the defendant to change his plea.

The Supreme Court held that the plea bargain process is important within the justice system, but also felt that in this specific case the trial judge should reassess the court’s plea bargain process. The high court remanded the case back to the trial judge for, either re-sentencing, based upon the original plea bargain, or to allow the defendant to withdraw his plea.

The dissent argued that when a plea bargain is broken, the court should automatically allow the defendant to withdraw the original plea. Rather than go this far, the majority determined that each case should be handled according to its specific merits rather than make any sweeping alterations of the plea bargain process within the criminal justice system.

One can easily see how prosecutors could use plea bargains to entice defendants to enter guilty pleas only to have the bargain withdrawn and then award the maximum sentence, which the defendants were trying to avoid. In this case, without the plea bargain, the defendant would have pleaded not guilty. One can also see how such a reneging could corrode public confidence in the criminal justice system. On the other hand, when the plea bargain is abused by using it too often and applying it too broadly, this could also diminish confidence in the legal system.

In fact, back in the early 1970s, Alaska Attorney General Avrum Gross ordered an end to plea bargains in his state. According to an executive summary of the issue done in 1991, researchers stated, “[H]e [Gross] had inherited a statewide system of prosecution in which few cases ever went to trial, and conviction rates were low” (Carns and Kruse). Gross' reasons for ending plea-bargaining also included: to establish a fair trial system, to restore confidence in the justice system, and to clarify justice system agencies’ roles with police investigating, prosecutors trying, and judges sentencing. Gross also saw the eliminating of plea bargaining as a way to improve his prosecutors' trial skills.

Gross’ order to end plea bargaining in Alaska was wrong. When something of value is misused or misapplied, it seems overkill to cast it out entirely. When used correctly, the plea bargain is a useful legal tool in the interests of justice. For minor crimes, it can save the taxpayers significant money. Even for more serious crimes, plea bargains take into consideration any mitigating circumstances that might warrant a lesser charge or reduced sentence. The plea bargain should be available for use at the discretion of the prosecutor with input from those involved in the case.

Teresa W. Carns and Dr. John Kruse, “Alaska’s Plea Bargaining Ban, Re-Evaluated, Executive Summary” (1991).

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