Arrests for driving under the influence, or DUI arrests, are the most common type of arrest in the U.S, with 1 in 10 arrests related to inebriated driving. With so many cases needing to be processed, many courts rely on plea bargaining when dealing with DUI cases (and 98% of other cases). Plea bargaining, a type of sentencing agreement that often involves reduced charges in exchange for a guilty plea, can provide its benefits in the justice system. For example, plea bargaining can offer a defendant a more definite outcome, over the uncertainty of a trial often accompanied by heavy court fees. Plea bargains also allow prosecutors to process cases much more quickly, rather than preparing for a lengthy trial.
Many have raised concerns about the use of plea bargains in the justice system. For instance, plea bargains are mostly negotiated between the prosecution and defense (notoriously in the hallways of the courthouse), and therefore lack judicial oversight or input from the victim or defendant. Additionally, because plea bargains were created to divert cases away from the courtroom to conserve resources, defendants are often able to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser punishment or sentence (known as a plea discount). For example, Jeffrey Epstein accepted a plea that resulted in a 13 month work-release punishment, as compared to the life in prison sentence he was facing if he had gone to trial.
In Perceptions of plea bargains for driving under the influence (DUI) cases involving alcohol and Marijuana (Webster, Golding, Malik & Riederer 2020), researchers investigated public perceptions of DUI plea bargains. Community members read a summary of a DUI case that varied based on type of substance (Alcohol vs. Marijuana), type of plea bargain (minimum license suspension vs. median license suspension) and prior arrests (first DUI vs. second DUI over 10 years). After reading each summary, participants were asked to answer a series of questions about their perceptions of the plea bargain agreement reached between the parties.
As researchers expected, participants were more likely to support plea bargains when the DUI involved marijuana than alcohol (likely due to social views that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol). Participants were not as supportive of steep plea discounts – they supported the median suspension more than the minimum suspension. Participants felt that a minimum penalty was ‘unfair’ and they believed that defendants were receiving a reward for taking a plea bargain, even though the law was broken.
Overall, research about perceptions of plea bargaining is very limited. However, studies like this one are incredibly important in guiding new research on plea bargaining since it is overwhelming used in our justice system. With the continuing rise in DUI cases in the U.S, it is also important to analyze public perceptions of plea bargaining in these types of cases to ensure that the public believes the justice system is fair (i.e., procedural justice), because that helps ensure adherence to the rule of law.