Guilty pleas, sentencing and sentence 'discounting' : who is sentence 'discounting' really for?

Tata, Cyrus and Gormley, Jay; Langer, Maximo and McConville, Michael and Wright, Luke, eds. (2024) Guilty pleas, sentencing and sentence 'discounting' : who is sentence 'discounting' really for? In: The Research Handbook on Plea Bargaining and Criminal Justice. Research Handbooks on Criminal Law and Justice series . Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp. 264-277. ISBN 9781802206678 (

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This chapter scrutinises structural and theoretical issues about what is officially known as a sentence 'discount' or 'reduction' for pleading guilty. These so-called discounts (argued to be a 'trial tax/penalty' by critics) are a subset of broader plea bargaining practices and they affect practically all criminal cases in some way. The arguments commonly advanced for sentence 'discounting' suggest various beneficiaries: the public (by increasing efficiency); and victims (through securing convictions and avoiding the ordeal of a trial). Yet, throughout all justifications for discounting, there is the assumption that defendants are key beneficiaries because of reduced sentences. However, we show that defendants may not benefit as much as is assumed (or even at all) and, furthermore, that these suppositions fail to fully examine how discounting has been implemented, rationalised, and operationalised. To help close the gap, this chapter analyses these different assumptions empirically. It concludes by suggesting that there is one other constituency that benefits: criminal justice professionals themselves. As professionals who self-consciously regard themselves as the ethical custodians of ‘justice’, they benefit socially and practically from so-called ‘discounting’ by being able to ‘dispose’ of cases expeditiously without feeling that they are doing injustice.