I’ve handled many cases, misdemeanor and felony, over the last thirty-plus years as both a prosecutor and defense lawyer. And most of them have ended in guilty pleas. Guilty pleas are a result of negotiations between the defense and the prosecution. As a prosecutor, I learned to carefully consider the evidence and the appropriate punishment before making an offer. I also learned to consider, but not to be bound by, the wishes of crime victims. They certainly have a right to input, but sometimes cannot see the case objectively as required for a fair prosecution. As a defense lawyer, I've learned that the way to get good guilty plea bargains is to prepare for trial. I remember once discovering through a careful study of the prior conviction papers the prosecution proposed to use to enhance my client’s punishment that the prior conviction was invalid. That led to a MUCH better plea bargain. The other thing I learned about plea bargaining was to take the time to make sure the client understood exactly what was going on. Otherwise, the plea can blow up, either in court or later.
Do people like to plead guilty? Not usually, of course. Some of them know they are getting a better deal than they perhaps deserve, and are content. Some of them are angry at the time, but then calm down. I remember a letter I received from such a client, apologizing for blowing up at me in court and thanking me for doing a good job for her. All of them, though, end up accepting that there is evidence that will convict them of a crime, and most of them accept responsibility for what they did. That, it seems to me, is what is supposed to happen in the criminal justice system.
Do innocent people plead guilty? Until DNA exonerations began, I would have said that this was very rare. Now I am not so sure. It does appear that some accused persons are so frightened and discouraged about the prospects for being found “not guilty” that they will accept a known punishment for something they didn’t do. I hope that hasn’t been true of any of my clients. I hope that they knew that I would fight hard for them if they decided to go to trial. I can’t say that I’ve won many criminal trials, but I can say that I fought hard!
Are guilty pleas a good idea? Yes. Sometimes it is suggested that a person who pleads guilty “got off.” Rest assured that the person who pleads guilty and gets a twenty-year sentence goes to prison just like the person who goes to trial and gets a twenty-year sentence. Does the person who pleads guilty get a shorter sentence? Usually. But that’s fair. This is a person who has decided to accept the consequences of the charge and save everyone the time, expense and trouble of a trial. And that’s worth something. There is no clear formula that says, “This crime is worth x number of years, while that crime is worth y number of years. Sentences for the same crime vary from person to person, from state to state, from country to country. Rewarding those who make the system work smoothly makes sense, and doing so by shortening the sentence is a sensible way to do it.