The Rising Problem of Pleading Guilty and Being Exonerated Years Later

During the late 70’s and early 80’s, state and federal lawmakers saw a spike in crime rates and decided that creating mandatory minimums and other criminal justice reforms were needed in order to crack down on felony crime. When these laws were enacted, the penalties and possibility of going to prison increased, along with the number of defendants who decided to plead guilty instead of going to trial.


The percentage of criminal defendants pleading guilty in federal court has increased dramatically over the past thirty years. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reports that 97 percent of criminal defendants pleaded guilty in federal court in 2015, compared to the 85 percent of criminal defendants that pleaded guilty in federal court nearly 30 years ago.

The rise in negotiated plea deals has gradually increased over the years and represents thousands of people who have decided that taking a plea deal is a better alternative than getting caught up in a trial.

The rise of individuals pleading guilty in federal court is important because there are a number of people who know that they are innocent but feel trapped into taking a plea deal because of the possibility of facing a large prison sentence. Many of these people serve out their full reduced sentence, but there are cases where people have been exonerated of any wrongdoing and are immediately released from the prison system.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, over 300 of the 1900 people who have been exonerated in the United States since 1989 pleaded guilty, and 68 out of the 157 exonerations in 2015 were cases where the defendant pleaded guilty. This number is the highest it has ever been and signifies that the problems plaguing the criminal justice system are only getting worse.

While it is impossible to know how many people in prison are actually innocent, Jed Rakoff, a New York federal judge says that prominent sociologists have estimated that between two and eight percent of those who plead guilty are in fact innocent. Many of these people do not want “to take the risk of going to trial because if you lose, you’re going to go away for a long, long time.”

A majority of those who have been exonerated after pleading guilty often have criminal records, live in poor neighborhoods, and are poorly educated. These individuals are normally helped by public defenders who are working multiple cases a day and are looking to quickly organize deals for their clients.

Court officials, including judges, are also keen on expediting court cases and love making deals that can buy themselves more time and reduce costs for their respective state governments. Judges and attorneys who make quick deals are seen as super-efficient and often find themselves rising faster in their careers than other individuals who work at a slower pace.

The reasons for exonerating people who have pleaded guilty in federal court can vary, but many were found to be innocent because of new advances in DNA evidence regarding blood and bodily fluid samples. Other reasons include prosecutorial misconduct, the mishandling of evidence by the police, and inappropriate interrogation practices used by law enforcement officials.

Defense attorney Shawn Sukumar commented, “The federal system of mandatory sentencing has created, or contributed to, an epidemic of over-incarceration that disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color while doing little to promote public safety.  Federal and state governments need to reduce their reliance on prisons as the cure for social ills and focus on more just and effective treatment and prevention alternatives.”

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