Albert McKenzie pleads guilty to a misdemeanor count of embezzlement in Alameda County, California. McKenzie had originally been charged with a felony for taking $52.50 from the sewing-machine company for which he worked. However, rather than go through a trial, the prosecution and defendant agreed to a plea bargain, one of the first documented in American courts—and a practice that was becoming increasingly common.
The right to a trial by jury was considered a central part of the justice system in the early days of the United States. The Seventh Amendment of the Bill of Rights codified it as an essential part of Americans’ civil liberties. When criminals were caught and charged, the government went through a trial and verdict. But in the 1800s, a trend toward plea bargaining began. In Alameda County, from 1880 to 1910, nearly 10 percent of all defendants changed their “not guilty” pleas to “guilty of lesser charges” or pled guilty to reduced charges.
Today, the plea bargain is an essential part of the criminal justice system. The great majority of charges, over 90 percent in many jurisdictions, are resolved through some type of plea bargain.