Eighteenth Century History of Plea Bargains

Up until the eighteenth century, a jury trial was often conducted without the use of a lawyer. The judge dominated this system. The defendant was denied legal counsel. In some instances, the prosecution was conducted by a lawyer, but in many instances, the judge handled much of the criminal procedure. The defendant would speak continuously at trial and even reply to the witnesses supplied by the prosecution. Due to the lack of legal counsel, cases tended to be handled much more quickly. Courts may try between 12 and 20 felony cases each day. As such, there was no real need for a plea bargaining system.


During the 1960s the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright significantly changed the way that criminal cases are handled. In that case, the Court ruled that indigent defendants have the right to legal counsel. As such, criminal cases now have a lawyer representing the criminal defendant’s rights and another lawyer representing the interests of the state. The need for plea bargains is more significant due to the prevalence of legal representation.

Miranda Rights

Another important distinction between how criminal cases are handled today and how they were handled years ago is the development of Miranda Rights. Among other rights, criminal defendants are now advised that anything that they say can be used against them in court. This reading of rights occurs at the time of arrest or before a suspect is interrogated. As such, more criminal defendants are made away of their right to be free from self-incrimination, which is laid out in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. As such, many criminal defendants do not say anything to law enforcement and rely solely on their lawyers for their defense. With less ammunition to use against the defendant, a greater need for plea bargains exists.

Modern Pressures

Today, there are many pressures that influence the popularity of plea bargain agreements. There are more cases on the dockets than ever before. Prosecutors lack the time necessary to go through an extensive trial for every case, even if it a winnable case for the prosecutor. Additionally, prosecutors are often overburdened with too many cases at one time.

Public defenders often face a similar set of circumstances. They are often assigned so many cases that they may not meet with the client until the court date. They may try to quickly dispose of cases to move onto the next one. Private criminal defense lawyers who are in demand in the area may also have many cases to balance at one time.