American prisons are overflowing, and that’s largely due to one thing: Plea deals. Recent studies indicate that over 97% of federal criminal cases and 94% of state-level cases are resolved through a plea.
That means that only somewhere between 3% and 6% of defendants insist on their right to a trial by the jury of their peers.
Are the police just that good at catching their suspects? Not really. Prosecutors are just really good at pressuring defendants to plead guilty (even when they’re not).
How do prosecutors pressure defendants into taking a deal?
People plead guilty to crimes they didn’t actually commit all the time. In fact, it’s estimated that roughly 20% of defendants who eventually ended up exonerated by one means or another since 1989 had pled guilty.
So what do prosecutors leverage to get plea deals? Mostly:
- Pretrial detentions, which can drag on longer than the sentence offered in the deal when a defendant doesn’t have the resources for bail
- The threat of higher charges, that come with mandatory minimum sentences
- Charge “stacking,” where the prosecutor continues layering on the charges (like individual counts for drug paraphernalia per empty baggie found in your possession), the longer a defendant holds out
- The fear of a “trial tax,” where the defendant can end up with a much stiffer sentence if they’re convicted (as a punishment for putting the court through the trouble of a trial) than if they plead out their case
In short, the prosecution knows that they can scare many defendants – especially those who have never been in trouble with the law before – into taking a plea when they shouldn’t.
If you’ve been charged with a serious crime, don’t agree to a plea deal until you’ve fully considered what’s best for you and your future.