Backwards Justice: Study Finds Defendants Are Incentivized To Plead Guilty, Skip A Trial

EXETER, England — You’ve just been arrested and accused of a crime you didn’t commit. Your first reaction is to fight the accusation and eventually clear your name. However, after talking with your lawyer, you realize you’re ultimately faced with two options: plead not guilty and put yourself through a lengthy and expensive court process; or plead guilty, skip a trial, and enjoy immediate release from custody. Suddenly, confessing to a crime you never committed doesn’t sound so bad.

The legal incentives associated with pleading guilty are subverting citizens’ right to a fair trial, according to a new study conducted at the University of Exeter in England. Naturally, researchers focused on the court system within England and Wales. After performing their analysis, the research team believe defendants in the British court system are being pressured into pleading guilty for crimes they didn’t commit. If it’s actually easier to just say “I’m guilty,” the entire point of a “fair trial” loses its meaning to the defendant.

For reference, between 2016-2017, 76.9%-78.1% of defendants in the magistrates’ court, and 70.1% of defendants in the Crown Court in England and Wales opted to plead guilty instead of going through with a trial.

The research team, lead by Dr. Rebecca Helm, surveyed 90 legal professionals practicing criminal law in England and Wales. Afterwards, researchers identified two prevailing benefits to pleading guilty — avoiding a lengthy and expensive trial, and immediately securing release from custody. According to the study’s authors, these two factors are likely swaying numerous defendants to forgo a trial.

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The surveyed legal professionals corroborated this theory, recounting numerous past clients who had pleaded guilty to save time and money. For example, in 2016 the average time for a court case involving a not guilty plea was 13.8 hours, but court cases involving a guilty plea only took 1.6 hours. These long hours are especially burdensome for defendants who have full time jobs or dependents to look after on a daily basis. Simply put, many people just don’t have the time to deal with a long trial.

In all, 83% of surveyed legal professionals said they previously advised clients who could have gotten out of jail immediately by pleading guilty, but would have had to stay in jail to await trial if they pleaded not guilty. Many respondents even remembered clients “desperate” to get out of jail due to poor living conditions, need to work, etc.

“It’s not practical to get rid of procedures where people waive their trial rights. But it is also important that all those involved in the justice system appreciate the potential for defendant rights to be infringed, and work to protect defendants in guilty plea systems,” Dr. Helm comments in a release. “More needs to be done to protect vulnerable defendants. The state has an obligation to ensure they have a fair trial, and the option of a full trial and pleading not-guilty should be accessible to them. This may be facilitated, for example, through the provision of financial assistance, or, monitoring devices to allow release on bail.”

The study’s authors say that changes should be made to the current legal system to ensure that a defendant isn’t effectively punished for simply exercising their right to a fair trial.

The study is published in The Journal of Law and Society.

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