Professor Jenia I. Turner of SMU Law School wrote for the National Academy of Justice that the most recent data reported by the National Registry of Exonerations show that roughly 18 percent of recorded exonerations (343 out of 1,956) were the product of guilty pleas. Why do innocent people plead guilty?
The NRE identified large plea discounts as a key factor driving false guilty pleas. Other analyses of plea based exonerations have similarly found that innocent defendants plead guilty to avoid the risk of harsher punishment after trial.
For instance in Pennsylvania the sentence guidelines consider two factors--the seriousness of the offense and the accused's prior record. A person with a criminal record and accused of a serious crime can expect a lengthy sentence. A plea offer of a fraction of the expected guideline sentence could result in a plea--guilty or not.
Turner points out a plea offer of time served for detained defendants has also been found to lead innocent defendants to plead guilty. Misdemeanor defendants are frequently detained for the simple reason that they cannot afford to post bail, and they are commonly offered plea deals to “time served.”
They are then subject to significant economic and familial pressures to plead guilty in order to be released from jail. A recent empirical study found that misdemeanor detainees “plead guilty at a 25 percent higher rate than similarly situated releasees.” The authors concluded that “[m]isdemeanor pretrial detention … seems especially likely to induce guilty pleas, including wrongful ones.”
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