An Omniscient Prosecutor?
If you’re charged for a crime in Georgia, you can be pretty sure that you’ll be found guilty. Conviction rates are sky high. Of the 17,639 criminal cases filed at Georgian courts during 2008, only seven ended in an acquittal and 111 more were terminated before a verdict was reached. That makes for a 99% conviction rate, which opponents of plea bargaining say is a direct result of the loss of judicial independence caused by the practice. Prosecutors say that the high conviction rate is the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘careful prosecution’ and is evidence of the system working well.
Deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court, Zaza Meishvili, argues that the conviction rate is nothing out of the ordinary when compared to the USA, where 90‑95% of criminal cases end in a plea bargain and therefore a guilty verdict.
The difference however, is that a very high proportion of non-plea-bargaining cases in Georgia also end in conviction. Most countries have conviction rates far lower than Georgia’s. For example, amongst OECD countries, only Japan’s 99.7% conviction rate exceeds Georgia’s. …
While the proportion of acquittals has dropped since plea bargaining started in 2004, the numbers were so low before that it hasn’t made much difference. We have come from a 97% conviction rate in 2003 to a 99% conviction rate in 2009. In fact, in 2005, the year plea bargaining graduated from being an anti-corruption measure to being widespread practice in ordinary criminal cases, the number of acquittals and terminated cases almost doubled and the conviction rate came down to 94%; the lowest on record.
The explanation for high conviction rates has less to do with plea bargaining and more to do with Georgia’s Soviet legal legacy, a system in which confession was king. As one academic put it: ‘the most powerful person in the Soviet model of criminal justice was, and largely remains, the prosecutor. He or she was responsible for directing the entire criminal proceeding, and thought little of using coerced confessions, falsified evidence or pre-trial detention as a method of inducing a confession’.
Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Zaza Meishvili reaffirmed the high incidence of confessions to TI Georgia, saying the ‘vast majority’ of plea bargains involved a defendant’s confession.
No Choice but to Bargain
But while we cannot blame plea bargaining for overtly high conviction rates, the overwhelming statistical likelihood of conviction has another very negative effect. The essence of plea bargaining dictates that it should be just that, a bargaining process with the defendant trying to extract the lightest possible sentence from the prosecutor. This is possible only when the defendant has sufficient leverage to make such a deal worth the prosecutor’s while. In other words, the prosecutor knows that if he doesn’t agree to the defendant’s terms, he will have to go through a lengthy legal process, perhaps through three levels of courts. When you have conviction rates approaching 100%, this leverage is much weakened, allowing prosecutors to dictate the terms and leaving defendants with ‘take it or leave it’ offers.
In systems with high conviction rates, plea bargaining doesn’t work. When even innocent defendants feel pressure to ‘admit guilt’ because the statistical likelihood of an acquittal is so low, the power is left in the hands of the prosecutors. Thus, unless Georgia’s conviction rate comes down to something more realistic, plea bargaining as an institution cannot work effectively. (s.n. – M.M.-B.)