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Federal Guilty Pleas on the Rise as Plea Bargaining Surpasses Jury Trials

A growing number of defendants are pleading guilty to federal crimes in the United States, often to avoid the lengthy prison sentences associated with losing in a trial. Along with the significant rise in plea bargaining the federal court system has seen in recent years, fewer and fewer defendants are trying their luck at trial. …

A growing number of defendants are pleading guilty to federal crimes in the United States, often to avoid the lengthy prison sentences associated with losing in a trial. Along with the significant rise in plea bargaining the federal court system has seen in recent years, fewer and fewer defendants are trying their luck at trial. In fact, in 2011, guilty pleas resolved 97% of all federal cases that the Justice Department prosecuted to a conclusion, an increase from 84% in 1990. During that same period of time, the number of federal criminal defendants nearly doubled, and the number of defendants that went to trial declined by nearly two-thirds. If you are facing charges for a criminal offense in Oklahoma, contact our skilled criminal defense attorneys at Oklahoma Legal Center to discuss your legal options. Our criminal defense lawyers have years of experience protecting the rights of criminal defendants in Oklahoma, and can help you build a strong defense in your case.

Defendants Feel Pressured to Plead Guilty

This rapid growth of plea bargaining over facing a trial jury has led critics to argue that the disturbing trend could be associated with innocent defendants feeling pressured to plead guilty. Former federal judge and professor at Harvard Law School, Nancy Gertner, finds the shrinking number of federal criminal defendants choosing to go to trial “extraordinarily troubling,” as many basic legal protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and other federal court decisions “are geared to a trial situation and not a bargaining situation.” Among the protections forfeited by a defendant who pleads guilty is the right to receive evidence that supports the defendant’s innocence from the prosecution. In other words, an innocent defendant could plead guilty to crime while prosecutors hold evidence that could absolve him or her of the offense. Unfortunately, statistics show that, of the nearly 300 people convicted of crimes by state courts who were later acquitted due to DNA tests over the past 20+ years, nearly 10% had pleaded guilty.

Defendants Rewarded With Lesser Penalties for Pleading Guilty

One factor that could be influencing the triumph of the plea bargain over jury trial is the development of new federal criminal laws and stiffer penalties instituted by Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. For example, Congress recently established a significant elevation in the potential prison sentence from five years to 20 years for certain types of fraud. And not only have federal authorities taken a stronger stance when it comes to criminal punishments, but federal guidelines have also introduced a system that rewards defendants with reduced sentences if they plead guilty or cooperate with prosecutors. As part of a plea deal, for example, federal prosecutors typically reduce the charges to a lesser offense or dismiss additional charges that could add years to a defendant’s sentence. Defendants who go to trial, however, see none of these benefits and could still be found guilty in the end.

Innocent Defendants Plead Guilty to Reduce Risk of Punishment

The propensity towards plea bargaining is believed to have hit its stride in the 20th century, when federal courts were overwhelmed by criminal cases, and plea bargaining became a common means of moving cases along. Lately, however, federal judges have begun to question the constitutionality of plea bargains, amid concerns that defendants aren’t adequately represented by their lawyers during the plea-bargaining process. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said in response to a plea bargain earlier this year, this strategy has “become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system,” that defendants should be guaranteed the same legal protections during plea bargaining as those associated with going to trial. In addition, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the criminal justice system encourages a prosecutor to charge a defendant with so many criminal counts that it “effectively compels an innocent defendant to avoid massive risk by pleading guilty to a lesser offense.” If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Oklahoma, don’t hesitate to protect your rights. Contact our reputable criminal defense attorneys at Oklahoma Legal Center today.

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