One golden principle in the U.S. criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence. However, due to the modern practice of plea bargains, this presumption in reality does not apply to a majority of cases in the United States.
Recently an article in the Washington Post highlighted this issue:
Americans are bargaining away their innocence
The presumption of innocence helps to combat prejudice and prejudging in the U.S. criminal justice system. But because plea bargains have supplanted trials in our criminal justice system, that presumption does not apply to most cases in the United States. Read more
Everyone is presumed innocent unless proven guilty and also has the right to fair jury trial. If a jury is convinced that the accused is guilty based on the evidence and logical arguments presented, only then does he or she lose his or her presumption of innocence. However, a staggering 95 percent of the cases pushed through the system do not go to trial.
Plea bargains typically ignore the fact that little admissible or credible evidence is presented, and they tend to readily offer the accused a reduced consequence such as a reduced prison sentence or probation in exchange for the individual agreeing to waive his/her right to a fair trial and just give up.
Prosecutors use their power to pressure people who have been accused of a crime. These individuals, who are presumed innocent, are pressured into waiving their right to a fair trial, and just give up. Why does this matter? Ultimately, people make the horrible choice of mitigating their damages and spending time in prison for a crime they did not commit.
In Bordenkircher v. Hayes (1978) in which, through a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided there was no constitutional problem with pressuring the accused to waive his or her trial and admit guilt. In the court’s view, illegal coercion does not occur “so long as the accused is free to accept or reject the prosecution’s offer.”
You can’t imagine what it’s like learning that the government actually has a “witness” on hand who is willing to lie about you in court. Your lawyer tells you to say you’re guilty and accept one year in prison instead of risking a 20-year prison sentence if the jury believes the lying witness. It happens every single day. Thousands of times per day.
The law does not have sympathy for an innocent person who has pled guilty but regrets that decision later. The government opposes appeals of this kind with the argument that the public has an interest in the “finality of judgments.”
A cruel twist is also seen at the time of sentencing, where the judge typically ask if the convicted person will “accept responsibility” for his or her conduct as well as the consequences of his or her actions. Maintaining one’s innocence at sentencing will mean more, not less, prison time.
Parole boards discriminate between prisoners who express remorse for their past actions have a greater chance of being granted parole compared to those who claim they have been unjustly imprisoned because they never committed the crime.
Plea-bargain practices must be reviewed. As the situation stands, this nightmare scenario for innocent people will continue to likely spend time in jail due to unfair pressure by prosecutors and simple risk mitigation. This is not justice.