An in-depth report finds that the so-called trial penalty has altered the United States’ criminal justice system, which is designed to be an adversarial process between government prosecutors and defense attorneys, presided over by a judge, with a jury of peers to decide a person’s guilt or innocence.
In its report, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) defines the trial penalty as the difference between the sentence the prosecution offers a defendant versus the sentence he or she could receive after a trial. NACDL says the disparity in sentencing undermines the justice system’s integrity.
Study notes the overwhelming rise of plea bargains
In 1990, 20% of those arrested for a crime chose to take their case to trial, while in 2017, NACDL says 97.2% agreed to plead guilty in federal court. The Innocence Project offers other stark results over plea bargains in state and federal courts:
- 95% of U.S. felony convictions result from guilty pleas
- 18% of exonerees did not commit the crime for which they pleaded guilty
- 65% of 418 who were later cleared were people of color
- 83% of cases involving DNA-exonerated defendants identified another perpetrator
Fewer trials undermine the intent of the system
The NACDL study identifies several points on how the rise of plea bargains has affected the criminal justice system, including:
- The trial penalty creates a punitive effect, which undermines the integrity of the plea-bargaining process
- The decline in the number of trials encourages longer sentences, which contributes to mass incarceration
- The decline in trials affects the quality of decision-making by prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges
- The decline in trials erodes oversight by jurors, thereby muting the voice of lay people in the criminal justice system
- Trials protect the defendant’s rights for a presumption of innocence and encourage the government to charge cases based only on legally-obtained and sufficient evidence to satisfy the reasonable doubt standard
Understand your rights for post-conviction relief or to appeal
Plea bargains do serve a valid purpose in the criminal justice system. However, if you were pressured to plead guilty to a crime you did not commit due to the fear of a longer sentence if you lost at trial, it is not too late to take action. An experienced post-conviction relief and appellate lawyer here in Arizona can help you understand your options and will aggressively fight for your freedom, and work to expunge your criminal record.