America’s Guilty Plea Problem Under Scrutiny

Innocence Organizations Launch Awareness Campaign Highlighting Broken Criminal Justice System that Pressures Innocent People to Plead Guilty

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Contact:  Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, pcates@innocenceproject.org  

(New York, NY– January 23, 2017) – The Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network today launched a public education campaign, GuiltyPleaProblem.org, to aim a spotlight on the problem of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

After rising steadily over the past two decades, today 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea. As GuiltyPleaProblem.org painfully illustrates, innocent people who are trapped in the system face enormous pressures to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. A criminal justice system that routinely forces innocent people to plead guilty is unfair and unjust, and, ultimately, violates the principles intended by the Sixth Amendment.

“While it is impossible to know the full extent of the problem, the fact that more than 10 percent of the 349 people who were proven innocent by DNA testing had initially pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit tells us that there is a problem and it is extensive,” said Maddy deLone, executive director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The system pressures people to make choices that are irrational and against their interest. As we arrest and prosecute more people, it becomes even less possible to ensure that the innocent can resist these pressures to plead. From the first moment a person is charged, all actors in the system—defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges—have an interest in a speedy resolution. While fixing this problem won’t be easy, we must find ways to lessen these pressures so that innocent people are not denied their Constitutional rights to a trial.”  

According to Innocence Project data, 11 percent of the 349 DNA exonerations involved people who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. The National Registry of Exonerations shows that 345 people have been exonerated who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit throughout the United States.  These represent the lucky few who pleaded guilty (in most cases to serious felonies) and were able to get their convictions reversed, which is especially difficult when a plea has been entered. There is no reliable data on the number of innocent people who pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, which makes up a much larger percentage of criminal convictions yet result in significant collateral consequences.   

At GuiltyPleaProblem.org, viewers will have the opportunity to watch first-person videos of four exonerees who accepted plea deals and served significant jail sentences despite being innocent.

  • Chris Ochoa: Ochoa pleaded guilty to a 1988 murder in order to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 2002 after spending 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
  • JoAnn Taylor: Taylor pleaded guilty to second degree murder to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She was exonerated in 2009 after spending 19 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.
  • Brian Banks: Banks pleaded guilty to sexual assault to avoid a 41-year prison sentence. He was eventually exonerated in 2012 with the help of the California Innocence Project.
  • Rodney Roberts: Roberts pleaded guilty to second degree kidnapping and spent 18 years in detention before being exonerated through DNA evidence.

In addition to these stories, the website features an interview with U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff who discusses some of the reasons for the rise in the percentage of cases that end in guilty pleas and how this undermines the justice system. TV star and criminal justice advocate Hill Harper is featured in a short public service announcement encouraging people to get involved and find solutions to this pressing problem.  

According to the Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network, the stories of these four innocent people are powerful reminders of the profound injustices that remain endemic to our criminal justice system. Yet, the organizations note, that there are no easy solutions for reversing the practice of guilty pleas. Today’s launch is the first of a multi-year campaign. Over the coming months, visitors will hear from experts on possible solutions to the problem.

“If every person accused of a crime demanded a trial, the system would be overwhelmed in a matter of hours,” added deLone. “While the plea system has a role to play in making the system run efficiently, we have come to rely on pleas to our detriment. The first step in correcting this profound injustice is to demonstrate the all too real harms that have resulted—and raise awareness that there is a problem to be solved.”

Visitors are encouraged to sign-up for updates on how they can become involved in fixing America’s guilty plea problem.

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