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Digging Deeper: What’s the deal with plea deals?

(WQOW) – Plea bargains. They are often used to resolve criminal cases and they are often criticized by members of the public, and sometimes even by law enforcement.

You see it on the news all the time: “A man facing nearly two-dozen charges in Eau Claire County reaches a plea deal,” and “today the court has accepted his plea deal.”

Simply put, a plea bargain involves reducing the charges against a suspect, in exchange for them agreeing to plead guilty or no contest, instead of going to trial.

“The main reason why plea bargains are necessary is that the system just couldn’t handle [it] if all those cases went to trial,” said Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell.

Newell has been a prosecutor for more than 20 years.

In 2018 alone more than 1,600 criminal cases were filed in Chippewa County. He said the court system could not handle every one of those cases going to trial.

“Within the first year everything would just be pushed out and pushed out and pushed out and then it would be unmanageable. Then they would just go back to doing plea bargains. It’s not just because victims deserve cases to be handled timely, defendants deserve to have cases handled timely,” Newell said.

There’s also the cost factor. Newell says if every one of the cases went to trial, and each had just a one-day trial, the cost to the county would be about $1.6 million.

Related: Crime & Courts page

Because plea bargains usually end with a lesser sentence than the original charges called for, some people question whether justice is served. Newell says yes.

“You’re balancing the seriousness of the case, the desire to hold someone accountable versus the strength of the evidence,” he told News 18. “So, the higher the strength of the evidence, the more you can hold someone accountable. The lesser the strength of the evidence the more you have to be willing to negotiate and resolve it.”

Besides the strength of the case, prosecutors also take the victims into consideration – including child victims, and victims of sexual assault.

“Trials are very traumatic for victims. They have to relive what occurred to them,” Newell said. “Research shows that is psychologically not good for them to go through with trial, but that they do that to hold their offenders accountable. So, if you can come up with a resolution that holds the offender accountable, and is appropriate and fair, and avoids the child or the sexual assault victim from having to take the stand. That’s the best way for the system to work.”

Another factor favoring plea bargains – manpower. A recent state workload analysis shows Chippewa County needs about 2 1/2 additional prosecutors.

“We can’t go to trial on 1,606 cases with five prosecutors. There’ s just not enough of us. Then with that, there’s the county support staff. There has to be that equal amount of support staff to the prosecutors that deal with that,” Newell said.

Sheriff Ron Cramer has been the Eau Claire County sheriff for 22 years. He calls plea bargains a necessary evil. News 18’s Keith Edwards asked him if he was ever frustrated when a plea bargain was reached with a suspect.

“There is going to be that time Keith, when we put a lot of hard work into a case and we thought probably that person should have got more because of their criminal history,” Cramer said.

Cramer’s concern is when plea bargains lead to probation for repeat offenders.

“One of the most frustrating things we see in our criminal justice system is people that get probation, fail on probation, get revoked, brought to our jail, and their next charge they’re put on probation, fail, brought to our jail a third time. At what point you know the plea agreement, for probation, that upsets me personally because i’m saying that’s lunacy,” Cramer said.

Plea bargains are a complex issue according to Cramer who said you can’t make everyone happy.

“The whole deal is as a result of a plea deal, can we keep the community safe from this person in the future?” Cramer questioned.

Newell agrees.

“The thing you have got to remember: If some of them had gone to trial, and been found not guilty and now you have a resolution for them because they plea bargained so you got some justice,”Newell said. “Some justice is always better than no justice.”

Newell said he’s seen criticism of plea bargain on social media and news websites.  He said he wishes those critics making snap judgments were more enlightened about what goes into the decisions of whether to plead out a case.

Keith Edwards

Keith Edwards is the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. anchor at News 18.

Keith grew up in the Village of Lake Hallie, attending Chippewa Falls schools where he started pursuing his broadcasting education.

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