UNC School of Law’s Ransdell Distinguished Professor of Law, Carissa Byrne Hessick, makes the case against plea bargaining in her new book, “Punishment Without Trial: Why Plea Bargaining is a Bad Deal.” Her research shows that criminal justice reform is impossible without first changing plea bargaining. The book will be released October 12.
The right to a trial by jury was once the centerpiece of the criminal justice system, but those trials have been all but replaced by plea bargaining. In 2018, more than 97 percent of defendants in this country pleaded guilty.
“I wanted to write this book because most Americans don’t know how plea bargaining has warped the criminal justice system,” Hessick explained. “The problems with plea bargaining are well known among law professors and lawyers who practice criminal law, but not among the general public. So I decided to write a book that explains the problems in a way that could be understood by everyone—including people who never went to law school.”
Plea deals became common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and they have continued to increase in popularity since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the practice as constitutional in 1971. Today, defendants are pressured by the criminal justice system to take a plea deal irrespective of their guilt or innocence. In “Punishment Without Trial”, Hessick showcases how plea bargaining undermines justice at every turn and across socioeconomic and racial divides.
Based on years of research and more than a dozen interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and people who took a plea deal, Hessick highlights how plea bargaining turns the legal system into a mass incarceration machine that is overcrowding jails and punishing citizens because it is the path of least resistance.
“Our criminal justice system is damaged and if we continue using plea bargaining as a way to side-step a jury trial, true criminal justice reform can’t happen and justice will be undermined,” says Hessick. “It shouldn’t be this easy to punish our fellow citizens.”
“Punishment Without Trial” takes a hard look at the legal system and suggests ways to fix the problems that plea bargaining has brought to light.
In addition to teaching at Carolina Law, Hessick also serves as the director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project. Before joining the faculty at Carolina Law she taught at the law schools of Arizona State, Harvard and the University of Utah. Her work on the criminal justice system has been published by the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Slate, and numerous academic journals. She also has one of the most informative and useful Twitter accounts for anyone interested in criminal justice.