In our last post, we began a discussion about plea deals, which are how the vast majority of criminal charges are resolved. Although plea bargains have a legitimate purpose and can sometimes be beneficial for defendants, many individuals are forced into a plea deal by the “trial penalty.” Essentially, the prosecutor threatens harsher charges and longer sentences if the defendant chooses to go to trial rather than accepting a deal.
Prosecutors did not always have so much power and authority. But over the past half-century, with the introduction of mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws and other sentence enhancements meant to be “tough on crime,” legislators have largely taken power away from judges and have given it instead to prosecutors. That change continues to cause serious problems for defendants.
The trial penalty often coerces defendants into accepting a plea deal, even if they are “pleading guilty” to more serious offenses (or greater involvement in offenses) than they actually committed. But in some cases, completely innocent individuals agree to falsely plead guilty because they fear that they will be convicted and that their punishment will be far worse due to the trial penalty.
Between 1989 and 2014, some 1,428 people were exonerated in the United States, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of these, about 10 percent had falsely pled guilty (including those charged with serious offenses like rape and murder). Why would so many people confess to something they didn’t do?
Unfortunately, the answer is often a combination of poor representation and prosecutorial threats. Defendants who are represented by overworked public defenders may not know whether the evidence against them is strong or weak, or what their chances would be at trial. Therefore, they offer false confessions to avoid even worse punishment.
If you are facing criminal charges, the good news is that help is available. An experienced criminal defense attorney can aggressively advocate for you in and out of the courtroom. That can include negotiating a more favorable plea deal or taking the case to court if doing so would be in your best interests.
The amount of power that prosecutors wield is perhaps unfair and unbalanced, but things likely won’t be changing anytime soon. For this and many other reasons, you need a good criminal defense attorney by your side as soon as possible.