Plea agreements a versatile tool of district attorney's trade

Posted: Monday, April 18, 2005

When criminals accept a plea agreement from state prosecutors, the person charged generally has some charges dismissed and others reduced in severity. But what does the state get in exchange?

Kenai District Attorney June Stein recently answered that question.

Known as plea bargains or Rule 11 agreements — referring to the Alaska criminal rule of court that defines pleas — plea agreements are offered to a defendant who agrees to plead guilty or no contest to at least one of the charges, rather than having the case go to trial.

Among several considerations Stein takes into account when making an offer to a defendant is giving closure to the family of the victim, she said.

"If a case goes to trial and there is a conviction, the defendant has the right to appeal the verdict, and that can take a very long time," Stein said.

"The criminal justice system is painful on victims and families of victims due to the length of time it can take," she said.

The Kenai prosecutor said her office has three or four staff members who do nothing but witness and victim contact.

The district attorney makes contact with the victim or the victim's family within 48 hours of a crime being committed and remains in contact throughout the process and beyond, Stein said.

The family is informed of all court hearings in the case and is invited to attend the hearings either in person or by telephone, and the district attorney discusses any plea agreement with the victim's family to assure a satisfactory outcome from such an agreement.

In addition to closure, other considerations include reconciliation, restitution and victim safety.

"If it's a domestic (violence) situation and the family wants to reconcile, that's a consideration," Stein said.

"If there are restitution issues, we encourage them to provide documentation if that's an issue," she said.

"If safety is an issue, we refer them to appropriate shelters or other resources."

The cost of conducting a jury trial is not a consideration, according to Stein, and the state does not offer a plea arrangement simply because the state does not feel it has a strong enough case to get a conviction.

"That's not doing justice," Stein said. "And that's what we do here."

The district attorney said she does consider the length of the sentence a defendant might get.

If, for example, a person is charged with five forgeries, the person is convicted of one count, and four counts are dismissed in a plea agreement, the sentence would be the same as if he or she were convicted of all five counts.

The judge would order the sentence to be served concurrently on each of the five counts, not consecutively.

"There's no guarantee the judge would give a harsher sentence if the person was convicted on all five counts," Stein said.

She also said, if the case went to trial, there is the possibility of no conviction at all, and if the person is convicted, the sentence could be the same as one agreed to in a plea arrangement.

The sentence also might be less, or it might be a harsher sentence.

In a plea agreement, the length of the sentence is specifically determined, or at least a range of sentence is specified, she said.

"Everyone knows going in what the sentence is," Stein said.

She did note that the judge also has the option of not accepting the plea agreement.

When asked how a plea of no contest differs from a plea of guilty, Stein said in a no-contest plea, the defendant is not admitting guilt, but is saying he or she will not fight the state.

"A guilty plea means you admit you did the crime," she said.

Legally, the judge must be assured there is a basis of fact in a criminal case.

If the plea is guilty, the defendant must lay the foundation as to what he or she did. If the person pleads no contest, the state must lay the foundation.

"In reality, at the end of the day, the judge will find the defendant guilty either way," Stein said.

At sentencing, the courts do take remorse into consideration, according to the district attorney.

"A no-contest plea means there is no remorse," Stein said.

An admission of guilt, on the other hand, could be a mitigator at sentencing, meaning it could lessen the sentence, she said.

The opposite, however, is not true.

"A no-contest plea would not be an aggravator," Stein said.

It would not lead to a harsher sentence.

All things considered, a plea arrangement best serves the state by assuring a conviction and a sense of how long the sentence would be.

"As we explain to the victim's family, a jury can find the person not guilty, or it can hang (not reach a verdict), and then they'd have to go through it all over again," Stein said.

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