Feb 22, 2017
It happens to thousands each year, and there’s no telling how many are still behind bars.
It’s hard to believe that the criminal justice system in the United States can be so flawed that innocent people are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, but it’s almost impossible to fathom that some of those innocent people actually agreed to plea bargains—reduced sentences in exchange for agreeing to a conviction. It makes no sense. Who would do that? Why?
Yet it happens. No one knows how often. Nearly 11% of the nation’s 349 DNA exonerations involve people who pleaded guilty to serious crimes they didn’t commit, and the National Registry of Exonerations has identified 345 cases of innocent people who pleaded guilty. When that many innocent people are agreeing to their own wrongful convictions, it is time to recognize that something is very wrong. The plea system is not a bargain, it’s a problem–at least for the innocent.
A system that forces or induces innocent people to plead guilty is unfair, unjust and runs counter to the Constitution’s guarantee of a right to a fair trial. Prosecutors who threaten scared youth with the death penalty; incentives that make a plea to something you didn’t do seem like a rational choice; defense lawyers who give terrible advice; and judges who fail to serve as a check on the truth all benefit from pleas which keep an overburdened system moving. And there’s little incentive for challenging the status quo. If every person charged with a crime demanded a trial, the system would be completely broken in a matter of hours. Our system relies on plea bargains.
Realistically, there are no easy solutions to fixing the problem. But for the sake of the many innocent people trapped by a broken system, we must do something. The Innocence Project and more than 50 members of the Innocence Network across the country are committed to exposing this problem. Over the next months, you will hear first-hand accounts from the wrongly convicted who explain the overwhelming pressure to enter guilty pleas to crimes they didn’t commit, and we will provide commentary and suggestions from experts on how to begin fixing the problem.
But change only comes when the 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 when the time is right, call on lawmakers to protect the innocent who are trapped in an overwhelmed and broken system.