When you think about a person who has been charged with a crime, you are likely to picture a defendant sitting in a courtroom while a prosecutor presents his or her case on behalf of the state or federal government. The defendant’s attorney, in this scenario, will have the opportunity to refute the government’s claims and raise reasonable doubts about his or her client’s guilt. Of course, this mental image is one of a criminal trial, but trends in criminal law over the last 50 years have forced criminal trials to the brink of extinction. In fact, a new report by a national lawyers’ group suggests that the stakes of going to trial have become so outrageously high that the right to a jury trial guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Sixth Amendment has been largely compromised.
A Troubling Report
Earlier this month, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released the findings of a report titled The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It. The report examined the dramatic differences in sentences offered to criminal defendants during plea bargain negotiations and those imposed after a criminal trial. This difference is what the report refers to as the “trial penalty.”
In compiling the report, the NACDL gathered and analyzed data for more than two years. The organization’s research found that the rate of federal criminal cases that go trial has been falling for 50 years and now sits at less than 3 percent. So, why do more than 97 percent of criminal defendants end up accepting a plea bargain? Could it be that so many are truly guilty? Theoretically, yes, but statistically not likely. Instead, the report claims that suspects “are being coerced to plead guilty” because the penalty for pushing for a trial is “simply too high to risk.”
Striking a Balance
The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1970 (Brady v. the United States) that plea bargains have a place in the American criminal justice system. Overloaded courts need a way to close cases that can be resolved through reasonable negotiations and fair sentences—especially when the defendant’s guilt is not truly in question. Prosecutors in many areas, however, use plea bargains to pressure defendants into pleading guilty and allow only a minimum number of cases to reach trial.
A defendant would never accept a plea bargain if he or she knew that the exact same sentence would be imposed following a trial, and court dockets would be completely overwhelmed with trials. For this reason, many experts believe that a trial penalty is not unreasonable—but only to a certain extent. The penalty should not be so great that innocent defendants are unwilling to take the risk to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to a trial. The report claims that this is where things stand now, as the penalty “becomes an overwhelming influence in a defendant’s consideration of a plea deal.”
Contact Us for Help
If you have been charged with a crime and have been offered a plea deal, it is critically important to speak with an experienced Connecticut criminal defense attorney before you agree to anything. Call 860-290-8690 to schedule a free consultation at Woolf Law Firm, LLC today. We will explain your available options and ensure that your rights are fully protected.