A large majority of criminal defendants will plead guilty before they ever reach a trial. Not every single defendant who pleads guilty actually committed the crime with which they are charged. There are many reasons why someone who is innocent feels compelled to take a plea deal.
Trial Penalties Can Be Far Worse
Many people are afraid of what is known as the “trial penalty.” Those who fight charges and lose their case face punishments worse than what they were offered in a plea deal. The judge’s perception is often that the defendant had their chance to plead guilty and get a better deal, but is now left to face the mercy of the court if the prosecutor can convince a jury of their guilt. Then, there is often not much mercy from the judge.
Defendants are legitimately afraid to go into court, regardless of their innocence, because there is so much at stake. Some defendants will stand firm, knowing that they are not guilty, and the truth will come out in court. Others may feel railroaded because the prosecutor may push for a guilty plea in exchange for a lighter sentence than they may have gotten in court.
Criminal defense attorneys promise to fight the charges on your behalf, but a shrinking number of defendants are choosing to go to trial. According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 20% of criminal defendants went to trial 30 years ago. In the following three decades, the number shrank to 3%. Clearly, the rate of people charged with crimes who were not innocent has not changed. Other factors have come into play that have caused more people to plead guilty. The criminal trial is somewhat vanishing as more cases are resolved without the need for a trial.
Prosecutors Offer Lighter Sentences for Guilty Pleas
Prosecutors will often offer a sentence a small fraction of what someone would receive upon conviction just to win a guilty plea. The prosecutor may not want to have their evidence tested, or they may want to be assured of a conviction so they can move on to the next case. Prosecutors do not like to lose cases at trial because it makes them look bad. Therefore, they will often do whatever they can to win a conviction, including making the defendant an offer that they will need to think very hard about, even if they were innocent. According to the same NACDL report, the average sentence post-trial is triple that of the average sentence pre-trial, giving defendants something serious to think about.
When the prosecutor makes a plea offer, the defendant must calculate their chances of winning at trial. They are often up against a large built-in advantage that the prosecutor has because they have the full budget and resources of their office standing behind them. In the back of their mind, they have the worst-case scenario that the jury will convict them in spite of them really being innocent. Unfortunately, in the American justice system, innocent people can be convicted. One can never fully predict what a jury may decide when they are presented with the fact and the evidence. Some people have a natural tendency to believe law enforcement when they testify in court.
Indigent defendants are even more likely to take a plea bargain, even if they are innocent. They may be unable to make the bail payment, so they can be held in jail from the time that they are charged through the trial. To have a pathway to get out of prison at some point, they may plead guilty when innocent. They do not want to languish in jail until the trial, so they plead guilty because they think that they can get home sooner.
Some People Just Want the Ordeal to End
In addition, the criminal justice process is beyond stressful for defendants. The time that charges are filed until trial can take months to more than a year. In the meantime, the defendant is bearing a severe burden, both in terms of their emotions and their finances. They may view a plea bargain as a way to make the problem go away sooner. They may view a shorter jail term as a small price to pay for making the ordeal end and getting their life back to more relative normal at some point.
The problem is that life will never fully return to normal after a criminal conviction. Besides the potential jail term, there may be other impacts on your life that can include:
- Your ability to find and keep certain jobs
- Your right to own a firearm
- Your custody case
- Your immigration status
- Your reputation
We Will Discuss All Your Options With You
Your lawyer’s job is to advise you of your legal options in your criminal case. You may think that a high plea bargain rate is the result of a lawyer not wanting to fight your case, but these decisions have come after extensive consultations between the client and attorney and negotiations with the prosecutor. In addition, it is not known how many of the large majority of people who pled guilty even had a lawyer. Some may have been handling their own case and thought that they had no choice but to plead guilty. Your lawyer will help you make an informed choice about the path forward, knowing the pros and cons of each course of action.
Call an Appleton Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have been charged with a criminal offense, you need legal help immediately. The quicker you get a lawyer on your case, the more informed you are about both your legal rights and your options. The attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff will review your case and give you advice that reflects your own situation. You can call us at (920) 450-9800 or contact us online to schedule your free initial consultation. We are available at all times.