Readers of this blog know that I hate the American plea bargaining system — for example, check out my earlier blog on the topic, “The Death of Trial By Jury“. So many of the ills of the criminal justice system are exacerbated by the fact that the plea bargaining system, in which prosecutors hold inordinate and extra-legal power, now dominates. The fact that 97% of all federal cases pursued by the Department of Justice last year were resolved by guilty pleas is a disgrace … and it should frighten all Americans interested in justice.
We know that innocent people routinely plead guilty — indeed, in the current American justice system, pleading guilty is usually the most rational action an innocent person can take. The expense, the stress, and the lost time incurred by a person who actually wants to exercise his Constitutional right to defend himself, plus the draconian sentencing penalty applied to any person who goes to trial and loses, is overwhelming. The Enron cases are replete with examples of innocent people pleading guilty.
The Wall Street Journal published an excellent article a few months ago titled, “Academic Study Shows Innocent Plead Guilty at High Rate” which helps to show the seriousness of the problem. In the study highlighted in that article, 55% of the innocent people plead guilty when faced with situations designed to replicate those faced by criminal defendants. I suspect that this number is actually low because the stress of people actually facing a real criminal indictment is much more intense than anything that can be replicated in a study. But even if the rate is “only” 55%, it means that most innocent people plead guilty. Think about that — most innocent criminal defendants in the USA falsely plead guilty!
This basically means that plea deals are worthless as an indicator of guilt or innocence. They tell us nothing except that the prosecutors have coerced another plea deal. There are dozens of problems with the American criminal justice system — however, if you have the energy to support just one reform, I recommend you spend it on the elimination of plea bargaining!