Why Innocent People Plead Guilty

U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, who was both a federal prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer before becoming a federal judge, recently gave a talk at the University of Southern California law school on why innocent people plead guilty.

“We have hundreds, or thousands, or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty. There’s got to be a way to limit this.”

In a nutshell, the reasons many innocent people plead guilty are too much prosecutorial power (in charging decisions and plea agreements) and mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

“People accused of crimes are often offered five years by prosecutors or face 20 to 30 years if they go to trial. … The prosecutor has the information, he has all the chips … and the defense lawyer has very, very little to work with. So it’s a system of prosecutor power and prosecutor discretion. I saw it in real life [as a criminal defense attorney], and I also know it in my work as a judge today.”

The solutions, according to Judge Rakoff: Reduce prosecutorial discretion and eliminate mandatory minimums. I couldn't agree more.

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    Matt Taibbi makes the point that (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by ruffian on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 05:39:37 AM EST
    in many cases the charge itself is the punishment. If a defendant wants to fight the charge, by the time he makes it through the initial jailing if he does not make bond, and all the court appearances, he has essentially done the time for a minor offense.  It is very easy to just take the plea - but then his record shows a conviction.

    He describes a day in one of the New York courtrooms where all parties - judge, public defenders, defendants are basically so broken down it does not occur to anyone to fight the system. 'Justice' dispensed in minutes, then on to the next one.  In that district police are just picking people up off the streets for "crimes" like blocking the sidewalk when they are just standing in front of their homes.

    No place in any civilized... (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by kdog on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 10:07:44 AM EST
    justice system for plea by threat...and imo that is exactly what is going on.  Glorified extortion...plead or else.

    Great way for ambitious persecutors to rack up convictions though!

    Absolutely (none / 0) (#5)
    by Mikado Cat on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 11:58:04 AM EST
    All of those pleas are counted as convictions. Last time I got a traffic ticket the prosecutor took everybody with a not guilty plea into the hall for 10 minutes of negotiating pleas and cut deals with almost everybody.

    Unless you can afford a top attorney going to court always has some risk.


    Answer is Well Known Outside of USA (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by RickyJim on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 10:29:14 AM EST
    1. Police Investigation is run by a (apolitical, usually civil service) judge who decides if case should be prosecuted.
    2. No such thing as a "plea".
    3. Investigating judge collects and holds all evidence and prepares dossier used by both prosecution and defense. No months of years of both sides suing each other to get evidence.

    But is it (none / 0) (#6)
    by Mikado Cat on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 11:59:05 AM EST
    in practice better or just different?

    The fact that the U.S. (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by NYShooter on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 03:46:27 PM EST
    has more people locked up than any other country in the world should come as no surprise. It is, simply, the logical result of a capitalist, "free enterprise" system run by the 1%, and, for the 1%.
    Think about it; what institution exists that has not been fully corrupted by the 1%? The Presidency? Congress? The Supreme Court? Our "Regulators? So, why shouldn't our, so called, Criminal Justice system (now, there's an oxymoron if I ever heard one) be any different?

    The very idea that an accused person's life, or, freedom, is the price that's at stake for the mere idea of pronouncing one's innocence is an abomination. What principal of justice states that an innocent defendant, especially one who isn't rich, must risk 5 years in a prison hellhole for pleading, "guilty," or, 25 to life if he/she has the temerity to proclaim their innocence? Apparently, justice is measured in dollars and cents. "Create trouble for the ruling class, risk the rest of your life in prison. Make it easy on them, spend only a few years in prison." Notice, being innocent, or, guilty, isn't even a consideration.

    And, just to show who's really in control, and, who has the ultimate power, the defendant is then forced to cooperate in his/her own humiliation. Having been blackmailed into a plea agreement he/she must stand up in open court, and, publicly, lie in pleading, "guilty." Then, with the full complicity of the Judge, the innocent defendant must make up a story stating how he/she committed the crime he/she didn't commit.

    I don't know, maybe we should have been a little suspicious when, 250 years ago, a group of slave owners got together and authored a document proclaiming, "all men are created equal," or, even the better joke, "liberty and justice for all."

    Wonder how many (none / 0) (#9)
    by jbindc on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 04:54:44 PM EST
    of these innocent people Judge Rakoff accepts the pleas of every day and doesn't question?

    Prosecutors (none / 0) (#1)
    by Mikado Cat on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 02:19:13 AM EST
    can offer a plea, but doesn't a judge also need to sign off on it?

    Best I can think of would be to use something like a grand jury to decide the max charge and sentence.

    Our whole system of justice needs some fresh thinking, not just tinkering around the extremes.

    Much better Parole (none / 0) (#7)
    by Mikado Cat on Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 12:01:33 PM EST
    might help fix the system from the back end. If we had a really good parole system, much better tracking and interaction, maybe serious jail time could become a thing of the past, or for only the most serious repeat offenders?