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Do plea bargains prevent wrongful convictions? Yes and no.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that those who plead guilty to crimes must be guilty of them. Why else would someone accept punishment for something they didn’t actually do? However, new research finds that in America at least, this natural link between guilt and plea bargaining isn’t always so ironclad.

Research gathered by Injustice Watch’s Trading Away Justice project finds that over 90 percent of criminal cases end in a plea bargain of some kind. Plea bargains offer defendants a lighter sentence in exchange for a guilty plea or allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

According to the organization’s findings – which uses data gathered by local and national innocence projects and The National Registry of Exonerations, among other sources –94 percent of state criminal convictions nationwide result in guilty pleas. In federal court, that number jumps to 97 percent. In Manhattan and Queens alone, 90 percent of felony cases result in plea bargains.

But as the name implies, Trading Away Justice has found that in some cases, the defendants were in fact innocent. Moreover, some even had enough evidence to likely convince a jury of that fact. So why did they trade away their right to a jury trial?

Top three reasons people accept plea bargains

The project outlines a few theories as to why someone might accept a plea deal even if they are innocent:

  • Going to trial takes a long time – Criminal cases take months or even years to reach a verdict. From pretrial discovery to jury selection to closing arguments, the time, money and stress of taking a case all the way to verdict deters many.
  • More lenient sentences – By their very definition, plea deals mean lower fines and less time in jail, or probation in lieu of jail. Defendants are often told they can “go home today” instead of rolling the dice on a trial.
  • Budget cuts– National and state budget cuts to the criminal justice system mean fewer judges, more congested court dockets and less resources for public defenders and prosecutors alike to properly adjudicate a criminal case. These pressures sometimes compel counsel to seek the path of least resistance when it comes to fighting criminal charges.

In essence, plea bargains keep an overwhelmed criminal justice system from shutting down completely. They also offer defendants the immediate relief of certainty about their case, instead of the frightening possibility that they might – or rather, might not – be acquitted in the future.

Is it still wrongful conviction?

The crux, of course, is that by avoiding a harsher sentence, defendants are still on the record as being “guilty” of some crime, even if they aren’t. It’s a classic Catch-22: to avoid wrongful conviction for a serious crime, you’re still convicted of something. That conviction could still result in jail time, fines and perhaps civil lawsuits (in cases of wrongful death), not to mention long-term consequences like job loss, broken personal relationships and ruined lives.

Thanks to projects like Trading Away Justice, however, more of the problematic issues surrounding plea deals are coming to light. Hundreds have been exonerated as a result of the investigative work being done. Some people have even successfully sued city officials, corrupt police officers and negligent city governments for damages as a result of their self-inflicted but nevertheless wrongful convictions. Such victories offer hope to those who may still be stuck in judicial limbo.

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