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ABA Task Force Laments Coerced Guilty Pleas, Rarity Of Trials

In any given year, 98 percent of federal criminal cases end with a plea bargain, a practice that prizes efficiency over fairness and innocence, says a new report from the American Bar Association.

A task force that includes prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and academics cited "substantial evidence" that innocent people are coerced into guilty pleas because of the power prosecutors hold over them, including the prospect of decades-long mandatory minimum sentences.

"Trials have become rare legal artifacts in most U.S. jurisdictions, and even nonexistent in others," the ABA Plea Bargain Task Force said in a report released Wednesday, NPR reports.

States including Pennsylvania, Texas and New York have trial rates of under three percent. In Santa Cruz County, Az., there were no trials from 2010 to 2012.

The prevalence of plea bargaining exploded over decades as a way to save money and time and to promote more certainty in outcomes. The practice comes with "a very high cost," said Prof. Lucian Dervan of Nashville's Belmont University College of Law, co-chair of the task force.

Pleas can allow police and government misconduct to go unchecked, because mistakes and misbehavior often emerge only after defense attorneys gain access to witness interviews and other materials.

The deals exacerbate racial inequality, with Black defendants more often subject to prosecutors' stacking of multiple charges in drug and gun cases. Altogether, defendants face stiffer punishments for going to trial — known as a trial penalty — that can add seven to nine years or more to their sentence.

Some innocent defendants agree to falsely plead guilty, sometimes on the advice of their own lawyers. An Innocence Project database of exonerations includes dozens of people who falsely pleaded guilty.

Overhauling the justice system will be no easy task, requiring changes to laws and ethics rules in many states. "It's past time to start that work," said Dervan, who has created the Plea Bargaining Institute to generate and share research.

The ABA task force makes 14 recommendations, including the need to collect and analyze data on plea bargains; the need to give defendants access to discovery materials before they enter a plea; and the need to eliminate bail requirements or pretrial detention when they're used to coerce someone into pleading guilty.

The report says prosecutors and judges should not demand or accept plea deals where defendants waive essential legal rights, such as the right to appeal and receive exculpatory information; and the right to make future claims for release over a terminal illness.


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