If you were charged with a misdemeanor, you might decide to plead guilty just to get out of jail and go home. By definition, the penalty for a misdemeanor must be less than a year behind bars, and most people receive far less than that. In many cases, a guilty plea results in no jail time at all.
In contrast, demanding a trial could be ruinous if you can’t make bail. You could be in jail for months awaiting a trial date. Not only would your life be on hold, but you could easily lose your job and even your housing. For many people, there is simply no question of trial — they simply must take a plea regardless of guilt.
This all-too-common scenario probably results in a lot of innocent people with bogus misdemeanor convictions on their records. Moreover, because the consequences of most misdemeanors are relatively minor, there is little chance for official exoneration.
Of the 2,145 exonerations registered by the National Registry of Exonerations since 1989, only about 4 percent were for misdemeanors. That’s 85 misdemeanor exonerations, 58 of which were for drug possession.
Of those 58 exonerations, all but one were from Harris County, Texas. The reason such a large percentage come from the Houston area is that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office has a very active conviction integrity unit, as we have mentioned before on this blog. Over the past three years or so, prosecutors there have exonerated at least 100 people in illegal drug possession cases (not all were misdemeanors).
In addition, the National Registry of Exonerations says that Harris County is the only U.S. jurisdiction where suspect substances are tested even after the defendant pleads guilty. In other jurisdictions, a guilty plea prevents testing beyond the initial field tests, which are known to be error-prone. Harris County sends all substances for testing, and this has resulted in exoneration when the substances turn out not to be illegal drugs.
“Plea bargaining is the great American method of sweeping problems in criminal cases under the rug,” writes the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.
Across the nation, some 13.2 million misdemeanor cases are filed every year, yet no data is available on how many result in convictions, let alone wrongful convictions.
There is something deeply wrong with a criminal justice system that incentivizes innocent people to plead guilty. It seems very likely that this has resulted in a large number of innocent people living with criminal records and no realistic way to clear their names. How large a number is impossible to say — and that itself is troubling. A nationwide movement to eliminate cash bail has growing support because of these concerns.