INDIANAPOLIS —The vast majority of criminal cases in Indiana are resolved through plea agreements, records show.
106,522 criminal cases were resolved through guilty pleas and admissions, according to 2021 Indiana trial court statistics.
By comparison, only 719 were disposed by a jury trial in 2021 and 3,078 via bench trial, state data shows.
The issue of plea agreements has come to the forefront once again because the suspect in the shooting of a Richmond police officer received a plea agreement in 2018.
Wayne County prosecutors initially charged Phillip Lee in 2017 with six charges including Unlawful Possession of a Firearm By a Serious Violent Felon but prosecutors dismissed the firearm charge as part of a plea agreement reached in 2018.
In the 2018 case, Lee pleaded guilty to possession of a syringe and possession of a narcotic and was sentenced to a total of 4 years.
As part of that same sentencing, the judge found Phillip Lee to be a habitual offender, which added three years to his sentence.
IDOC records show was released from prison on 12/31/2021 after serving 3.5 years behind bars.
The Wayne County prosecutor’s office has declined WRTV’s requests to discuss the 2018 case, but WRTV viewers have expressed frustration that Lee was out of prison despite a long track record of criminal offenses.
“He was like a stick of dynamite ready to explode,” wrote one WRTV Facebook user.
Plea agreements are the norm for resolving criminal cases in Wayne County as well, records show.
2021 data shows 1,446 criminal cases in Wayne County were resolved with guilty plea/admissions, 15 ended in a jury trial and 30 resulted in a bench trial.
Plea agreements are an arrangement between the prosecutor and the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a certain crime and the prosecutor typically dismisses a charge or charges for doing so.
Professor Jody Madeira with the IU Maurer School of Law said plea agreements serve an important purpose in our criminal justice system.
“Plea bargaining actually serves a bunch of good purposes,” Madeira said. “First of all defendants avoid the time and expense of hiring a lawyer, they often avoid harsher punishment, they often avoid publicity. The prosecution often saves tax dollars by getting a conviction and avoiding a lengthy trial."
Very few criminal cases in Indiana actually go to trial— a fact that may surprise many people.
“Most people in the public believe there are a lot of criminal trials, and that simply isn’t the case,” Madeira said. “The vast majority are resolved through plea bargains just for the interest of the defendant and the state. If we didn’t have plea bargaining, the criminal justice system would just be bogged down in lawyers and defendants and prosecutors would all be overwhelmed."
Of course, there are downsides to plea agreements.
For example, the defendant is often convicted on less serious charges.
This can mean the suspect receives a lighter sentence than if they had been convicted on all charges.
“Victims’ rights groups might feel that the defendant is not being charged with all the possible charges, not the most important charges, or perhaps pleading guilty to a lesser offense,” Madeira said. “It might seem logical in hindsight that had the plea agreement not been pursued, that this person would still be in jail. But there’s simply no way of knowing and juries can acquit on those charges and they often do."
Opponents of plea agreements also argue it can result in innocent people pleading guilty and requires defendants to give up some of their rights including the right to appeal.
It’s also important to note that just because a defendant and prosecutor reach a plea agreement, a judge may not approve it.