Why Innocent People Often Plead Guilty

Why Innocent People Often Plead Guilty August 3, 2018

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers when facing any criminal charges. That’s the fantasy. The reality? Less than 3% of all criminal trials ever involve a trial, with the rest being settled by a guilty plea. But a new report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers reveals that a great many innocent people are pleading guilty due to a lack of competent representation and the perverse incentives inherent in our current (in)justice system.

Guilty pleas have replaced trials for a very simple reason: individuals who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial face exponentially higher sentences if they invoke the right to trial and lose. Faced with this choice, individuals almost uniformly surrender the right to trial rather than insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, defense lawyers spend most of their time negotiating guilty pleas rather than ensuring that police and the government respect the boundaries of the law including the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, and judges dedicate their time to administering plea allocutions rather than evaluating the constitutional and legal aspects of the government’s case and police conduct. Equally important, the public rarely exercises the oversight function envisioned by the Framers and inherent in jury service. Further, the pressure to plead guilty, and plead early, is often accompanied by a requirement that accused persons waive many valuable rights, including the right to challenge unlawfully procured evidence and the right to appeal issues which have an impact not only in their cases but also for society at large…

For most, however, the right to a trial is a choice in name only. Empirical studies and exoneration data have revealed that the pressures defendants face in the plea bargaining process are so strong even innocent people can be convinced to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. This disturbing figure casts doubt on the assumption that defendants who plead guilty do so voluntarily.

As this Report illustrates, there is ample evidence that federal criminal defendants are being coerced to plead guilty because the penalty for exercising their constitutional rights is simply too high to risk. This “trial penalty” results from the discrepancy between the sentence the prosecutor is willing to offer in exchange for a guilty plea and the sentence that would be imposed after a trial. If there were no discrepancy at all, there would be far less incentive for defendants to plead guilty. But the gap between post-trial and post-plea sentences can be so wide, it becomes an overwhelming influence in a defendant’s consideration of a plea deal. When a prosecutor offers to reduce a multi-decade prison sentence to a number of years — from 30 years to 5 years, for example — any choice the defendant had in the matter is all but eliminated. Although comprehensive data regarding plea offers remains largely unavailable, anecdotal evidence suggests that offers of this nature are common. Prosecutors enjoy enormous discretion to force a defendant’s hand. While some may view prosecutors’ actions as generous, their willingness to reduce sentences so drastically raises serious doubt that the initial sentences were reasonable in the first place.

I’ve seen this in operation first hand, having spent a day “shadowing” a public defender many years ago. More than 95% of all criminal defendants can’t afford an attorney, so they have a public defender, but they are always underfunded and overstretched, handling hundreds of cases at a time. They literally hold what looks like a cattle call audition, with people just lined up around the block. They step up to the table, give the PD their name and he looks for a folder with that name on it. He tells them what the prosecutor is offering and almost always suggests that they take the deal or they’ll face far stiffer penalties if they go to trial.

Bear in mind that this is almost always the first time attorney and client have ever met. The attorney hasn’t looked at a single piece of evidence, hasn’t asked his client for his or her story about what happened, has done no investigation whatsoever. They can’t. They don’t have the time or the resources. All they know is that the prosecutor is accusing them of committing a crime, the potential penalty for which is huge, but that they’ll accept a guilty plea and a far lower sentence. They couldn’t really mount an adequate defense if they wanted to, so they have to recommend the guilty plea in order to save the client from a far worse sentence. They aren’t bad people, or lazy, they simply don’t have the resources or the time to do their job. So their job has now become little more than being a mouthpiece for the prosecutors.

Justice is not even hypothetically possible in this situation. We must invest the resources to level the playing field. Public defenders should have equal funding to the prosecutor’s office, which means the same ability to hire enough attorneys to handle a reasonable number of cases at a time, to hire investigators and experts to seek out and evaluate evidence, the same support staff to facilitate a competent defense. Anything less is a recipe for injustice. Guilty pleas have their place in our justice system, of course, but they should not be the norm. The norm should be a trial by jury with competent, capable representation.

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