Innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. In nearly 11% of the nation’s 349 DNA exoneration cases, innocent people entered guilty pleas. Unquestionably, these cases represent just a small fraction of the innocent people who have pleaded guilty, and there’s no telling how many more innocents who entered guilty pleas remain behind bars.
Surely, the problem of innocent people pleading guilty is rooted in the mammoth role that plea deals play in the U.S. criminal justice system more universally. In an essay penned for the New York Review of Books in 2014, New York Judge Jed Rakoff wrote that the country’s plea deal system has created a dramatic shift in American criminal justice, away from the model our forefathers’ once envisioned, where “the critical element in the system was the jury trial.”
In 2013, according to Rakoff, more than 97 percent of federal criminal charges that were not dismissed resulted in plea deals. The numbers are equally bad for most states; 95 percent of the felony cases that aren’t dismissed are resolved through plea deals.
In today’s system, prosecutors—not judges—are placed in the drivers’ seat. Prosecutors largely determine the parameters of the deals they offer—from the charges to the sentences—and can leverage them to pressure even innocent people into pleading guilty. With the system stacked against them, innocent people plead guilty to crimes they never committed rather than risk potentially lengthy prison sentences at trial.
In felony cases, those plea deals can still result in prison sentences. In cases of innocent people pleading guilty to misdemeanors, the repercussions still cut deep, from paying hefty fines to facing insurmountable hurdles to getting work and securing housing to hindering child custody.
Clearly, our country’s plea deal system has become a problem, one in which innocent people are being swept up and having a hard time finding their way out.
A 2015 article by the National Registry of Exonerations said that 15 percent of people who have been exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit entered guilty pleas. According to the article, that’s not because innocent people are unlikely to plead guilty but because it is extremely difficult for innocent people who plead guilty to challenge their convictions.
America’s guilty plea problem is absolutely critical to the work of the Innocence Project. And we’re are committed to fixing it.
Join us for the release of a new website about the guilty plea problem in America—sharing the stories of exonerees who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit and how their lives and the lives of their loved ones were changed forever.
With this new project, we hope to foster a deep understanding of our country’s guilty plea problem and, in turn, compel meaningful solutions.