If you were facing criminal charges for a crime you did not commit, would you ever choose to plead guilty? Of course you wouldn't. Most people find that question to be ridiculous, until or unless they find themselves wrongfully accused of a crime.
We recently wrote about a new database highlighting the occurrence of thousands of wrongful criminal convictions over the last several decades. Sadly, many of the wrongfully convicted on this list were forced or persuaded to plead guilty or no contest to serious crimes such as rape, assault and even murder. Why did they do this?
Many plead "guilty" or "no contest" rather than "not guilty" because our criminal justice system relies heavily on plea bargains. Though these pleas are packaged as more attractive options than more serious penalties, the plea bargain process may actually inspire a worse outcome than a trial would for those who have been wrongfully accused.
Plea bargains are meant to save time, resources, and to be a mutually beneficial compromise between prosecutors and defendants. Defendants are given the option to plead no contest or guilty to charges in exchange for a reduced incarceration sentence, or perhaps for probation instead of incarceration. Defendants are often persuaded to take a deal because they are warned that if they are found guilty at trial, they could potentially face a much worse sentence.
To rephrase the earlier question: Would you plead guilty to a crime you did not commit if you thought a plea bargain was your only way out? This is the heartbreaking dilemma that many criminal defendants face.
Because of high potential for wrongful admission of guilt, some advocates for criminal justice reform have said: "it is time for the [U.S. Supreme Court] to reevaluate the constitutionality of the institution [of plea bargains]." Check back later this week as we continue our discussion about problems with the plea bargain process.
Source: SCPR.org, "Researchers say plea bargains actually send innocent defendants to jail," Rina Palta, June 13, 2012