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Judge: Many Innocent People Plead Guilty

A federal judge in New York did an interview with the New York Daily News in which he said that tens of thousands of innocent people have pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because the criminal justice system gives prosecutors enormous power to coerce such pleas.

Too many innocent people go to prison because the American plea bargain process is broken, says a prominent New York judge with an innovative new solution.

Manhattan Federal Judge Jed Rakoff argues judges should become more involved in the process so prosecutors armed with harsh mandatory minimum sentences are less able to bully defendants, he told the Daily News in a rare sit-down interview…

How many innocent or partly innocently people are locked up on false plea agreements? Rakoff says estimates have ranged from 1% to 8% of the prison population.

Even 0.5% would total more than 10,000 people, Rakoff said.

Here’s his proposed solution:

That’s why Rakoff is proposing a mechanism that would designate junior judges to hear evidence and issue plea bargain recommendations early on in cases.

The junior judges, called magistrate judges in the federal system, would hear from prosecutors and defense lawyers separately before weighing in. Their recommendations wouldn’t be binding.

Rakoff says the setup, which could begin as a pilot program, would bring plea bargaining out from behind closed doors and relieve pressure on defendants deciding whether to risk a longer sentence by heading to trial.

That’s a good start. Another would be eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, but that would require Congressional action and that’s very unlikely to happen. You know what would help even more? Legalize drugs. All of them. Immediately.

Comments

  1. Kevin Kehres says

    Couldn’t a judge rule that mandatory minimums violate the Constitution?

    Don’t know if that would fly with the current SCOTUS configuration. But it doesn’t seem a far-fetched argument to me.

  2. DonDueed says

    Cruel and unusual punishment, I would imagine.

    Cruel, I think, would be arguable, but long sentences can hardly be considered unusual in present-day USA.

  3. eric says

    The fifth’s due process could also be used (hypothetically). The argument there would be: having my sentence fixed by a legislature instead of decided by judge and jury deprives me of liberty without any process available to me to contest or argue my term of imprisonment.

  4. colnago80 says

    All too many people agree with the late and unlamented Dominick Donne who opined that folks convicted for crimes they didn’t commit were probably guilty of other crimes for which they weren’t suspected or for which there was insufficient evidence.

  5. zmidponk says

    colnago80:

    All too many people agree with the late and unlamented Dominick Donne who opined that folks convicted for crimes they didn’t commit were probably guilty of other crimes for which they weren’t suspected or for which there was insufficient evidence.

    Did he read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and think they were ‘how-to’ manuals? I ask, because that’s pretty much how the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork ran the justice system in those.

  6. busterggi says

    Judges are just as bad as prosecutors imo, I had to plead guilty to something which ruined my career years ago because I was told that I would not be allowed any witnesses on my behalf and that the maximum sentence was already guaranteed. As the judge had accused me of being a terrorist at my pretrial hearing I’m pretty sure that’s how it would have gone. Regarding my attorney – I couldn’t pay him as much as the other side could so he sat there listening to all of it and not saying a word.

  7. says

    That’s why Rakoff is proposing a mechanism that would designate junior judges to hear evidence and issue plea bargain recommendations early on in cases.

    I used to be a Junior Judge. Still have the membership card and the tiny gavel.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @dingojack
    I always like the 9th myself, that amendment which has been gutted almost to irrelevance. Of course, I like the 5th an 8th here too.

  9. says

    Over 97% of those accused of a felony agree to a plea bargain. Why? Because prosecutors threaten to throw the book at you if you don’t and you could be facing a sentence that is ten, even twenty times longer than the one on offer, and given that your odds of being acquitted in many court systems these days are as low as one-in-a-hundred, what sane person wouldn’t take the deal offered to you?

    I was astounded when I first saw these numbers, especially given that the right to a fair and speedy trial is supposedly enshrined in the US Constitution. It’s not much of a Constitutional right if you are forced to waive your right under extreme duress.

    The fastest way to fix the broken criminal justice system in America would be for the Supreme Court to find the current plea bargain system unconstitutional, which common sense dictates that it surely is (even if there are good arguments for having some type of plea system in place).

    It would force a massive overhaul of the entire system, since the courts couldn’t handle the massive workload without a coercive plea bargaining system akin to legalized extortion in place. Prosecutions would have to be more selective, fewer arrests would have to be made, and it would shut off the steady income being made by for-profit bail bondsmen and the corporate prison system.

    Then perhaps, the number of people incarcerated in America would no longer be six times that of the European Union (per capita) which is perhaps the most shameful statistic of them all, considering American is supposed to be the Land of the Free.

  10. Ichthyic says

    it’s not just the power of the prosecutors, the entire judicial system is set up so that there are WAY more incentives for pleading guilty instead of going to trial.

    on small issues, it’s very likely that you in fact ARE far better off pleading guilty, the penalties for losing at trial being so much more substantial.

    at one level, I understand this structure… reduce clogged courts, court costs, etc… but it certainly isn’t supporting the fundamental purpose of the legal system.

    like all other aspects of government, our legal system overflows with HR wonks who think it should run like a business.

  11. dingojack says

    DonDueed – since plea bargains occur often (tacitus opines around 97%) that wouldn’t work, would it?

    Dingo
    ——–
    NB: Along with grammar, the ‘founding fathers’ weren’t too good at Boolean logic.

  12. says

    The criminal justice system is essentially broken. If you are indigent you get an over worked public defender who may be a good lawyer, but is saddled with no budget and an incentive to clear his in box. If you are middle class you face HUGE legal bills. A simple case can easily cost in the area of $5,000 just to go through pre-trial motions. If it gos to trial, you can count on additional fees, but at minimum, another $5,000, more if it is a jury trial. Yeah, the lawyers charge more for a jury trial, basically giving you an incentive to not ask for a jury trial and putting your fate in the hands of the judge. Then your lawyer tells you that the prosecutor is asking for X years, yada yada and that statistically the rate of conviction is not in your favor. When faced with all that, a plea bargain and reduced sentence looks a heck of a lot more appealing than a trial. Of course if you have unlimited funds at your disposal you can hire a team of defense lawyers, drag the case out for years and in general cloud the waters enough that you either get acquitted or cause the prosecutor to give up in frustration. Yup, broken. It’s not about justice, it is about advancing careers and money.

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