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How many innocent people plead guilty to crimes they don't commit?

When people plead guilty to criminal charges, it must be because they are guilty, right? After all, if a person was innocent, surely he or she would fight the charges until their innocent was proven. It seems like a logical conclusion, but recent studies show that may not be the case for many people who are arrested in Portsmouth and throughout the country.

We've written other posts about the prevalence of wrongful convictions. However, new statistics reveal that an alarming percentage of innocent people take plea bargains.

In one story, then-17-year-old Brian was facing criminal charges. Attorneys told him that if he didn't take guilty plea, he might be sentenced to life in prison. Although he knew he was innocent, he pleaded no contest to the charges. After spending more than five years in prison, a judge exonerated Brian and said the case against him had been filled with holes.

Sadly, Brian's situation is not unique.

In a recent study, researchers gave students a test and then accused them of cheating on it. The students were given two choices: If they admitted to cheating, they would lose the compensation they were promised for participating in the study. However, if they didn't admit to cheating and an academic review board found them guilty, they would lose their compensation, their faculty advisor would be informed, and they would be enrolled in a mandatory ethics course.

In the study, more than 56 percent of the innocent students pleaded guilty to cheating. The researchers described the situation with the students as the same sort of thing that happens with criminal defendants who are innocent. If they plead guilty, they can receive a lesser sentence and either go home right away -- for example, if they receive probation -- or go home sooner than if they fight their charges and lose.

Currently, about 96 percent of criminal defendants take plea bargains. If the results from the study translate into a similar percentage of innocent criminal defendants taking bargains, then it's time to reassess the constitutionality of our court system.

Source: KPCC, "Researchers say plea bargains actually send innocent defendants to jail," Rina Palta, June 13, 2012

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