The Pragmatic Plea: Expanding Use of the Alford Plea to Promote Traditionally Conflicting Interests of the Criminal Justice System
Volume 82, No. 5, Spring-Summer 2010
By Jenny Elayne Ronis

The Alford plea is a criminal defendant’s explicit assertion of innocence while pleading guilty. Despite concerns that the Alford plea robs victims of a sense of closure or vindication, it remains a useful and valid plea-bargaining tool. The Alford plea is especially appropriate for criminal defendants who are unwilling or unable to admit their guilt, but perceive the risks of pursuing a full criminal trial to be greater than the costs of the terms offered in a plea bargain. Conversely, the Alford plea serves victim interests as well, by collaterally estopping the defendant in subsequent civil suits.

Currently, the Alford plea is frequently used in Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but is forbidden in Indiana and New Jersey. The federal criminal system, which requires permission of the court to enter any plea, discourages its application. Most states, however, leave acceptance of an Alford plea to the trial court’s discretion.

If courts embrace their discretion to accept the Alford plea, it will positively serve defendants, while aiding in the just and efficient resolution of criminal cases. This Comment proposes that, for a narrow class of defendants, the Alford plea is capable of balancing elements of the criminal justice system that are traditionally considered mutually exclusive. The Alford plea can simultaneously promote both the victim’s and defendant’s interests, while contributing to systemic goals of efficiency and justice.

Part II of this Comment offers an overview of the process of plea bargaining in general, the origins of the Alford plea, and subsequent developments in the plea- bargaining system as a result of the Alford plea’s effect on post-conviction relief. Part III.A discusses the public policy and efficiency interests served by the Alford plea, and explains how the plea promotes both defendant and victim concerns. Part III.B addresses typical concerns raised by the use of the Alford plea, and rejects these concerns as criticisms aimed at the entire plea-bargaining system which could not be resolved by eliminating the Alford plea in particular.

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