In 2013, it is estimated that well over 95% of all crimes were settled by plea bargaining. Even people who maintain their innocence have accepted plea bargains. Why is it you may ask, that an innocent person would ever accept a plea.
The answer, and the truth is complicated. Needless to say, the problem is rooted in the minimum sentence guidelines written in the statutes for many states and in the Federal justice system. This is a far cry from what the founding fathers intended when they wrote in the constitution. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
However, with increases in crime rate and the cost associated with certain criminal defense, individuals, even innocent individuals, may opt for a plea bargain rather than fight the system.
We recently had a client who agreed to tell her story highlighting the importance of having experienced and aggressive counsel after criminal charges. For the sake of anonymity lets call her Hazel.
Hazel was charged with three (3) counts of white collar fraud, carrying with it a maximum sentence of sixty (60) years if convicted on all counts, and a minimum sentence of five (5) years if convicted on all counts. This was Hazel’s first brush with the law. The prosecutor, very early in the case offered full restitution and a seal record after probation for Hazel. But Hazel, despite having a baby only two months old at the time of arrest, decided no deal. Hazel maintained she was innocent of all charges, and despite the nearly two thousand (2000) pages of documents submitted by the prosecutor, was determined to fight the charges to the bitter end.
As it turned out, Hazel was indeed innocent of ALL the charges and we were able to get ALL charges dropped. In her case, the alleged victim had fabricated the paperwork, but Hazel after waving her rights to a speedy trial had to go through nearly three years of delays and hardship, both financial and emotional, to prove her innocence.
Similar defendants might have gone with a plea when looking at sixty (60) years behind bars, especially in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming evidence. Similar defendants may have been coerced into plea bargains by crafty prosecutors if not for the help of an aggressive attorney. While the power of the prosecution in the plea bargaining process may not change in the near future, it is important that as a defendant in a criminal matter, you not only exercise your right to be represented, but also seek the best counsel available.