Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Creators: Doing Time Without Committing a Crime

Matthew T. Mangino
Creators Syndicate
January 9, 2024

Everyday throughout America, people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. There are countless stories of people who have been exonerated after spending years in prison for crimes to which they pleaded guilty.

Why would an innocent person plead guilty to a crime?

It is not because the police have returned to the era of the "third degree," beating suspects with rubber hoses to elicit confessions. Absent some egregious exceptions, police and prosecutors are not torturing suspects into admissions of guilt.

Law enforcement doesn't have to resort to such tactics. People charged with a crime, and represented by counsel, freely and voluntarily plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.

The convergence of three things in the criminal justice system makes the seemingly impossible — innocent people pleading guilty — routine. Sentence guidelines, plea bargains and the "trial penalty" have created the perfect storm of injustice.

A sentence imposed by a judge is not solely within the discretion of the judge. A majority of states and the federal government utilize guidelines in sentencing. A sentence imposed by a judge is not solely within the discretion of the judge.

Sentence guidelines consist of a grid with two values, the prior history score and gravity score. A defendant with a history of criminal convictions will receive a numerical score — the more prior convictions, the higher the score. Each crime has a gravity score. The more serious the offense, the higher the score. The presumptive range of sentence is determined by where the two values meet on a grid.

An accused with a long criminal record, suspected of a serious crime, could face a hefty sentence under the guidelines.

In steps the plea bargain. Crime victims despise those two words; defense attorneys thrive on them; and prosecutors can't survive without them. Politicians deride the system because of the underhanded "deals" made with vicious criminals. Even frontline police officers challenge prosecutors when they perceive that the terms of a plea bargain are too lenient.

There are compelling reasons to plea bargain. Prosecutors are intimately familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of every case. There are circumstances where a plea to a lesser offense is better than a not-guilty verdict. A reluctant witness or a poor witness may also influence plea negotiations.

How can a plea bargain convince an innocent person to plead guilty? The "trial penalty" is the tipping point. Every person charged with a crime has the constitutional right to face a jury of his or her peers. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to trial. However, those who chose to go to trial, instead of accepting a plea bargain, are often penalized by a much harsher sentence.

The formula for getting the innocent to plead guilty is simple. It goes like this: A guy living in a seedy neighborhood, with a criminal history, is accused of a burglary. He is innocent. His criminal record and the seriousness of the offense would result in a guideline sentence of five to 10 years in prison.

The evidence against him is shaky or nonexistent. The prosecutor offers a plea bargain to a lesser offense with a sentence of one to two years. Although he is innocent, if he goes to trial and gets convicted, he could face a sentence even beyond the presumptive guideline range. The guy faces a Hobson's choice: plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit or face the possibility of years languishing in prison after a conviction.

A 2014 report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found, "There is ample evidence that . . . defendants are being coerced to plead guilty because the (trial) penalty for exercising their constitutional rights is simply too high to risk. This 'trial penalty' results from the discrepancy between the sentence the prosecutor is willing to offer in exchange for a guilty plea and the sentence that would be imposed after a trial."

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book "The Executioner's Toll, 2010" was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino

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