Pleading Guilty

 Pleading guilty in the Shadow of trial Defendants often make a special form of confession outside the police station with the prosecutor and often the defense lawyer present. That confession involves pleading guilty, typically in exchange for lesser charges and a more lenient sentence.

Every day, thousands of defendants decide to plead guilty. In fact, an esti- mated 97% of convicted defendants in the U.S. federal criminal justice system resolve their cases in this way. For legal systems all over the world, this process represents a “shortcut” alternative to trial that results in enormous savings of time, money, and other resources.

It is clear that people are far more likely to plead guilty if they had commit- ted the crime for which they are charged than if they had not. However, with so many cases getting resolved outside of court, as part of an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant, the courts have wondered if there is an “inno- cence problem”—whether innocent people who fear ultimate conviction and a harsh sentence sometimes plead guilty “in the shadow of trial”.

In an article titled “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” Federal Judge Jed Rakoff (2014) described how an innocent person might make a rational deci- sion to plead guilty—in the same way that an innocent person might confess to police—after considering the crime that is charged, the strength of the evi- dence, the punishment alternatives, and the pressures that are brought to bear on the process: “If the defendant wants to plead guilty, the prosecutor will offer him a considerably reduced charge, but only if the plea is agreed to promptly.” To the extent that these decisions are further “informed” by pressure from the prosecutor—a figure of authority in a position to elicit high level of obedience —the decision to plead guilty is often made in the presence of powerful social influences.

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