In 2012, 109 adult felony cases and another 51 juvenile delinquency cases were filed in Park County’s 5th District Court.
It can take months or years for those cases to work through the system, but it’s estimated that 95-97 percent will be resolved through plea negotiations of some form, County Attorney Bryan Skoric said.
That number is not exclusive to Park County. In 2011, The New York Times reported fewer than one in 40 felony cases make it to trial, and The Wall Street Journal reported 97 percent of federal cases were resolved through plea bargains.
Recent criticism of a perceived inconsistency in the plea agreements approved by District Judge Steven Cranfill has sparked debate in the community.
In a “letter to the editor,” Sheriff Scott Steward referred to the number of agreements that result in little to no jail time and a few years probation as a “human tragedy.”
He pointed to a contradiction in sending a woman who stole from the animal shelter to prison for 3-5 years, but allowing others convicted of child abuse, drug delivery and robbery to exit the courthouse on probation.
But Park County Bar Association president and Cody lawyer Matt Winslow said, “It would be a misunderstanding to look at a judge’s sentencing record and decide he’s being too lenient.
“There are a wide variety of variables the prosecutor considers for a plea agreement,” Winslow added. “When it’s brought before a judge, he considers, ‘Does the agreement between parties fall within the realm of a just result?’”
While there are many benefits to plea agreements – from sparing a victim the ordeal of testifying in court to guaranteeing some form of punishment in a weak case – the increasing push toward negotiation is often about resources.
“It’s in the interest of the efficient administration of justice,” Winslow said. “We don’t have enough judges and lawyers and money to take every case to trial.”
“Unfortunately, plea agreements have become an integral part of the system,” Skoric said. “Fiscal restraints force us to prioritize.
“By no means are we throwing out cases, but we are being realistic about what we can do and what our priorities are,” Skoric said. “We don’t get what we want with every case, but no one gets that.”
Skoric said there is a long list of factors he considers when approaching plea negotiations.
This includes the defendant’s criminal history, severity of the offense, law enforcement and victim input, victim and witness cooperation, strengths and weaknesses of the case, recommendations from professionals and case load.
“I can have a perfect case where I know the defendant is guilty of the charges,” Skoric said. “But let’s say the victim is not cooperating as a witness and I know I have the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
“I don’t want to dismiss the charges, so negotiating a plea is a good option.”
Unless the defendant insists that he’s innocent and demands a trial, the defense attorney will likely come to the table and haggle over an agreement that seems fair.
What’s in a plea agreement?
No two plea agreements look alike, Skoric said.
“That’s a part of the story the media sometimes misses,” Skoric added. “People see ‘plea agreement’ in the court file, but don’t see what we agreed to.”
Typically, an agreement stipulates that if the defendant pleads guilty they will receive a lesser sentence made up of so many years in prison or so many years probation.
But another common form is for the prosecutors to agree to dismiss one or more felony charges or amend charges to a lesser crime in exchange for a guilty plea.
Then both parties proceed to argue for probation or prison time in front of a judge who will issue a sentence he finds appropriate.
In some cases, the prosecutor will agree to “cap” the sentence recommendation at a certain amount of prison time or probation.
Agreements may also stipulate that the prosecutor not press further charges related to the same incident or may be related to facts of the case in regards to restitution.
“Judge’s are given the final say,” Skoric said, explaining that this power can act as a check on the prosecutor’s actions. “If a judge feels the agreement is just not right, they can reject it.”
“It’s pretty rare for a judge to reject an agreement, but I have seen it happen,” Winslow added.
More often than not, Winslow said a judge will be inclined to accept the agreement – even if it’s not what he or she would have ordered after a trial.
“The Legislature tells us what a crime is worth,” Skoric added. “But very rarely – even in a trial – would we seek the maximum penalty.
“The Legislature also prescribes probation,” Skoric added. “A judge first has to determine that probation is or is not appropriate to even consider prison time.”
Often, Skoric said, they look for a sentence that would be in sync with what could have been obtained through trial.
“We are trying to find a resolution that gives justice,” Skoric said. “And justice isn’t always the maximum sentence.”
(Heidi Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)