Under the U.S. legal system, every criminal defendant charged with something serious is entitled to a trial by a jury of their peers, and it only takes one dissenting vote to get an acquittal. It’s a process that’s clearly (and purposefully) weighted in favor of the defendant, based on the idea that it’s better for numerous guilty people to go free than have one innocent person be convicted.
Why, then, so do roughly 97% of criminal cases end in a plea deal?
Prosecutors, judges and the system are to blame
The courts are overcrowded already, and a criminal trial costs the state both time and money. That gives the state a strong incentive to “settle” a criminal case with a plea deal.
That can mean lowering the charges to a lesser offense, offering defendants a sentence on the lower end of the potential range for their charges or even exchanging a guilty plea for “time served” while in the local jail. Some folks call that the “guilty plea discount.”
This system also encourages the state to become vindictive when it doesn’t get its way. The flip side of the “guilty plea discount,” however, is what’s called the “trial tax.” Experts estimate that a defendant who gets convicted at trial after refusing to accept a plea deal faces between two and six times the odds of imprisonment at sentencing and up to a 60% increase in their prison time.
Is it any wonder that many defendants are afraid to take their cases to trial? Particularly if they’re represented by an overburdened public defender, many defendants are terrified of the potential outcome of a trial – even when they’re innocent.
Navigating the modern criminal legal system takes experience, dedication and knowledge. Before you do anything else, invoke your right to remain silent until you can fully explore your defense options.