Suspects who are falsely accused of committing crimes are often pressured into accepting plea bargains, according to a recent study.
“It is unclear how many of the more than 96 percent of defendants who are convicted through pleas of guilty each year are actually innocent of the charged offenses, but it is clear that plea bargaining has an innocence problem,” according to the unpublished study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia School of Law and the Florida Institute of Technology.
To illustrate the issue, researchers attempted to recreate the conditions in which innocent defendants accept plea bargains.
Using college students as their subjects, the authors concluded that plea bargains are often detrimental to the cases of those who take them.
The authors asked the students to complete a set of logic questions for financial compensation. They then falsely accused the students of cheating, and told them that if they did not admit their guilt, they would be disciplined and lose their compensation. If they did admit their guilt, they would lose their compensation but would not be disciplined.
“More than half of the innocent participants were willing to falsely admit guilt in return for a perceived benefit,” according to the study. Students in the study who faced harsh sentences, irrespective of guilt or innocence, “accepted the plea offer at a rate almost 10 percent higher than the subjects facing the lenient sentencing condition,” the study said.
There was a direct relationship between the length of the sentence and the likelihood that a defendant will accept the bargain, researchers concluded
‘… it is clear that plea bargaining
has an innocence problem.’
As Ellen Podgor wrote in a 2010 article about innocence in white collar crime, “innocence is no longer the key determinant … Our legal system places the risk of going to trial, and in some cases even being charged with a crime, so high, that innocence and guilt no longer become the real consideration.”
The study acknowledged the opposing view. Some experts believe the problem is “exaggerated,” arguing that the likelihood of a false confession in the case of a plea bargain is minimal. That argument is based on the perception that falsely accused defendants will not accept a prosecutor’s offer to plead guilty.
“Today, over 96 percent of convictions in the federal system result from pleas of guilt rather than decisions by juries,” the study said.
According to the study, plea bargaining was not always such a dominant force in the American criminal justice system. Appellate courts began seeing an increase in plea bargains around the time of the Civil War, but most were struck down as unconstitutional. However, the practice continued.
Due to mounting pressures on the legal system and over-criminalization of defendants in the early years of the 20th century, plea bargains made their way into the forefront of the criminal justice system with a “spectacular rise to power,” the study said.
In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brady v. United States that plea bargaining was an allowable form of justice. In its decision, the court said plea bargaining should only be used when evidence overwhelmingly pointed to a defendant’s guilt and the defendant may benefit from the option to bargain, according to the study.
That same year, the court said in North Carolina v. Alford it was permissible for a defendant to enter a guilty plea while maintaining his or her innocence, if it is in their best interest.