Criminal courts determine the guilt or innocence of those persons accused of committing a crime. In theory. justice is determined in an adversarial Process in which the prosecutor (an attorney who represents the state) argues that the accused is guilty. and the defense attorney asserts that the accused is innocent. In reality. judges wield a great deal of discretion. Working with prosecutors. they decide whom to release and whom to hold for further hearings. and what sentences to impose on those persons who are convicted. Prosecuting attorneys also have considerable leeway in deciding which cases to prosecute and when to negotiate a plea bargain with a defense attorney. As cases are sorted through the legal machinery. a steady attrition occurs. At each stage. various officials determine what alternatives \\<;\1 be available for those cases still remaining in the system. These discretionary decisions often have a disproportionate impact on youthful offenders who are poor . About 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried in court; instead. they are resolved by plea bargain/lg, a process in which the prosecution negotiates a reduced sentence for the accused in exchange for a guilty plea (Senna and Siegel. 2002). Defendants (especially those who are poor and cannot afford to pay an attorney) may be urged to plead guilty to a lesser crime in return for not being tried for the more serious crime for which they were arrested Prison sentences given in plea bargains var}' widely from one region to another and even from judge to judge within one state. those who advocate the practice of plea bargaining believe that it allows for individualized justice for, alleged offenders because judges. prosecutors. and defense attorneys can agree to a plea and punishment that best fits the offense and the offender. They also believe that this process helps reduce the backlog of criminal cases in the court system as well 3S the lengthy process often evolved in a criminal trial. However. those who seek to abolish plea ~Training believe that this practice leads to innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they have not committed or pleading guilty to a crime other than the one they actually committed because they arc offered a lesser sentence (Cole and Smith. 2004).
More serious crimes. such as murder, felonious assault. and rape. are more likely to proceed to trial than other forms of criminal conduct; however. many of these cases do not reach the trial stage, For example. one study of 75 of the largest counties in the United States found that only 26 percent of murder cases actually went to trial. By contrast. only about 6 percent of all other cases proceeded to trial (Reaves. 200). One of the most important activities of the court system is establishing the sentence of the accused after h~ or she has been found guilty or has pleaded guilty. Typically. sentencing involves the following kinds of sentences or dispositions: fines. probation. alternative or intermediate sanctions (such as house arrest or electronic monitoring). incarceration. and capital punishment (Siegel. 2006).