of felony convictions in the U.S. are obtained through guilty pleas
of known exonerees pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit
of 418 exonerees who pleaded guilty were people of color
of DNA exoneration plea cases resulted in identification of the alternate perpetrator
Innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. It happens to countless people each year, and there's no telling how many are behind bars as a result.
When most people learn that a person pleaded guilty to a crime, they believe the person must have done it. Yet, the number of wrongful convictions exposed over the last 25 years has proven that reasoning to often be unsubstantiated. In fact, nearly 11 percent of the nation’s 362 DNA-based exonerations since 1989 involved people who pleaded guilty to serious crimes they didn’t commit. Furthermore, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 18 percent of known exonerees pleaded guilty.
While it’s hard to believe that the United States criminal justice system could be so deeply flawed that innocent people are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, it’s even harder to fathom that some of those innocent people actually felt compelled to plead guilty, often in exchange for a reduced sentence or to avoid the death penalty. When so many innocent people are agreeing to their own wrongful convictions, it’s time to acknowledge that something is very wrong. The plea system is not a bargain; it’s a problem that has no regard for innocence.
The guilty plea problem doesn’t occur just at the front-end of the system. It also happens after people have taken the extraordinary step of demonstrating—through solid evidence and often decades in prison—that they were, in fact, innocent. People who have spent years fighting to both prove their innocence and to go home are faced with yet another impossible choice: go home immediately or much sooner without being exonerated or take the risk of being re-convicted at trial.
Instead of vacating their convictions on the basis of innocence, the prosecution offers the wrongly convicted a deal—plead guilty, have your sentenced reduced and go home. In some cases, the plea allows the defendant to still say they are innocent even while pleading guilty. Regardless, the system fails because it places resolving cases through pleas over uncovering the truth. It also denies wrongly convicted people the justice they deserve and burdens them with a criminal record and the severe collateral consequences that follow, including being denied jobs, housing, the ability to spend time with their children and the right to vote, as well as the lack of compensation for years wrongly served in jail.
We all are entitled to a criminal justice system that is fair, just and adheres to the Constitution’s promise of a fair trial. And yet, we live with a broken system that no one deserves: prosecutors who threaten scared youth with harsh sentences, including the death penalty; incentives that make taking pleas over trial the most rational choice; overburdened and under-resourced public defense systems that can’t provide adequate representation; and, judges who fail to serve as a check on the truth and justice. To makes matters worse, there’s little incentive for challenging the status quo because, ultimately, plea deals keep an overburdened and dysfunctional system moving along. If every person charged with a crime demanded a trial, the system would be brought to a halt within a matter of hours. Sadly, our system relies on plea bargains.
There are no easy solutions to fixing this problem, but for the sake of the many innocent people trapped by a broken system, we must do something. The Innocence Project and 56 members of the Innocence Network across the country are committed to raising awareness about the over-reliance on guilty pleas at every stage of the system.
But change only comes when the public demands it. We invite you to join our campaign to fix America’s guilty plea problem. Help us spread the word about this injustice and know that we will call on you when we need you to contact your lawmakers and demand change. We all need to work together to protect the innocent who are trapped in an overwhelmed and broken system.
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The Innocence Project is a national litigation/public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing, and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.