Usually, plea bargaining is the purview of prosecutors in criminal cases, but recently the California Supreme Court has unanimously determined that judges may inform defendants of their possible sentence if they plead guilty to the charges against them. This dangerous precedent has caused quite a stir in the state and has completely re-defined the roles of judges and attorneys. A balance is meant to exist between the court’s representative, the judge, and the attorneys dealing with the case. Normally, judges are meant to be impartial, upholding the law that already exists – not creating new laws or acting as lawyers do.
The case that set fire to this new debate over whether judicial plea-bargaining (which would be crossing the line) is the same as informing criminal defendants of their “indicated sentence” involved a man named Wesley Clancey, who was arrested n 2010 for forging checks more than $123,000 in Santa Clara County. Because Clancey had already been convicted in the past of a felony, the prosecutor in the case argued for an 8-9 year prison term. However, Judge Rene Navarro told Clancey something entirely different – that he planned to give him 5 years instead of 8-9 because the conviction was more than 10 years old. In the end, Clancey got the 5 years, partly because he pleaded no contest to the charges as per Judge Navarro’s comments (see People vs. Clancey, S200158).
While some see this incredible change as positive, allowing the court to spend less time on particular cases in which the defendant admits guilt, other see this as an overwhelming blow to the legitimacy of prosecutorial power and authority. The truth of the matter is, however, that prosecutors are often overzealous in their sentencing requests. And judges? Well, let’s just say that they are likely to have a great deal more experience and knowledge than the average prosecutor. Now, when it seems that the prosecution is being unreasonable, a California judge can adjust and control for this factor, making the judicial process run more smoothly and saving the tax payers of the state the money for unnecessary trials.