I notice that in the United States it seems like the accused rarely plead guilty in the case of a serious crime, even if the evidence is overwhelming. Not infrequently I will see cases in which the defense makes almost completely absurd arguments which are obviously futile. What is the point of this?

Are judges deliberately encouraging this behavior to increase business for legal professionals?

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    I've recently read an article that something like 97% of convictions are based on plea bargains. While I search for a link, can you quantify "rarely" in your question?
    – user662852
    Oct 30, 2015 at 3:36
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    I think TV may have clouded your judgement. Or perhaps a case or 2 that got in to the media.
    – Terry
    Oct 30, 2015 at 10:18

2 Answers 2


You are misinformed.

In fact, approximately the reverse is true: in a typical jurisdiction in the United States today in excess of 95 percent of criminal cases that begin never reach a verdict. (The exact number varies a little, depending on which exact court system we're talking about.) Or never reach a trial at all, in fact. Or never even come close to making it to the trial date.

Now, in some of those instances the charges wind up being dismissed. In some others defendants are diverted outside of the traditional criminal justice system when the circumstances seem better suited to other resolutions (examples: a petty criminal who steals to feed a drug addiction is diverted into a process where he or she will get drug treatment, a non-violent mentally ill person is put into a process where he or she will get mental health treatment); if they complete the diversion program the criminal charges are dropped. But in the vast majority of cases a defendant winds up pleading guilty, in court, to something. Sometimes in exchange for the prosecutor dropping certain other charges. Sometimes in return for the prosecutor downgrading a charge he or she would otherwise pursue in court to a charge for a lesser offense. Sometimes just in return for perhaps getting some credit in the eyes of the judge for "acceptance of responsibility" when sentencing rolls around. But make no mistake: there are few elements more central to the way modern American criminal justice works than plea bargaining.

But don't feel too bad: for what it's worth you are certainly not alone in thinking otherwise. In fact, in my personal experience almost everyone outside the legal profession and the court system/s holds at least a few large misconceptions about the way criminal justice in the U.S. actually works. General news media outlets contribute quite a bit to helping those misconceptions form by typically focusing solely on the rare, high-profile, controversial (and thus ratings-grabbing) cases rather than the vast, vast number that end in a whimper instead of a bang. Law drama shows and movies almost invariably bear little relation to reality. (And that's is totally fine, BTW, as long as you realize they bear almost no relation to reality.) Which makes sense: Law & Order: SVU probably wouldn't have stayed on the air year after year if most episodes just consisted of an endless stream of one rote, dull plea hearing after another, each featuring some otherwise-unremarkable sleezeball who's been caught dead-to-rights downloading and re-distributing child pornography.

(And, BTW, the misconceptions aren't limited to criminal law & justice, by any means. In fact, in my view other high-profile legal arenas like civil litigation, intellectual property disputes, constitutional law battles, and many others are even more misunderstood. But I digress...)

Anyway, to sum up: very frequent plea bargaining = one of the foundations of how modern American criminal justice operates at a practical level. For tons more stats, background info, and analysis corroborating and analyzing that fact, see the links commenters have already posted and/or any of the many, many good items on the topic indexed via our friend Google.

  • The biggest lie in TV court dramas is the notion that a typical court proceeding has any entertainment value. If you don't have a dog in the fight, court is tedious.
    – EvilSnack
    Aug 22, 2023 at 10:49

In the United States, it is rare for a defendant to plead guilty to an offense at their first appearance, in fact, there is no incentive to do so! Pleading guilty to the top count is equivalent to getting convicted in a jury trial, so why not make the government work for it and potentially be out on bail for a while?

However, over time the defendants and the prosecutors work out an agreement that everyone can agree to. In time the defendant admits to some offenses by pleading guilty and the penalties the defendant receives are typically much less than the defendant could get after a jury trial.

So in the end, about 95-97% of defendants do plead guilty, but only after pleading not guilty first. There's no point of pleading guilty if you don't get something out of it as well.

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