Approximately 630,000 Americans are locked up in local jails at any given time, according to figures from the Prison Policy Initiative. Of those, 70 percent are waiting for their cases to go to trial, though most will eventually waive their right to a trial by pleading guilty, Emily Yoffe reports in a piece published today in The Atlantic.
This broken criminal justice system is a symptom of mass incarceration. Nearly 11 million people were arrested in 2015, Yoffe reports, and courts would be even more backlogged than they are now if every single person’s case went to trial. Low-income people are less likely to afford bail, meaning the bulk of America’s jailed population is made up of people whose incarceration stems from being poor. People in jail are more likely to plead guilty, studies show, because it’s typically the fastest track to getting home. By design, plea bargains are supposed to be a way of avoiding lengthy, costly trials for defendants who are clearly guilty. Instead, they’ve become a way for low-income people to get out of jail as quickly as possible, even if it means pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t commit.
Before the 1960s, between one-fourth and one-third of state felony charges led to a trial, compared to just one-twentieth today, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz in the Atlantic. Instead of waiting for their cases to go to trial, most people choose to plead guilty, Yoffe reports. On average, 94 percent of state-level felony convictions are the result of plea bargains, as well as around 97 percent of federal convictions. And as Yoffe writes, plea bargains may help cases move along quickly, but they also “make it easy for prosecutors to convict defendants who may not be guilty, who don’t present a danger to society, or whose ‘crime’ may primarily be a matter of suffering from poverty, mental illness, or addiction.”
In New York, for example, 98 percent of felony arrests that end in convictions are the result of plea bargains, the New York Times reported today. New York is one of 10 states where prosecutors can wait until a trial to share evidence, meaning many people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit without even knowing what evidence prosecutors have against them. According to the Times, there are often few options for low-income New Yorkers who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. Some choose to plead guilty without seeing all the evidence prosecutors have against them. Even for those who maintain their innocence, pleading guilty can be preferable to waiting for their case to be heard and risking the possibility of a prison sentence that could run much longer than the time they’d face under a plea.