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How can it be a "perfectly rational choice" to plead guilty, when you didn't do it?

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

For people who haven't been impacted by the justice system, it's hard to imagine pleading guilty to a crime you didn't commit. Courtroom dramas make it seem like you'd get a chance to defend yourself in court.

However, the reality is that our criminal-legal system often incentivizes self-incrimination, including for crimes the person didn't commit. How can that be?

The Innocence Project works to "free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice." They find that "the false guilty plea, whereby an actually innocent person pleads guilty to a crime they did not commit, is much more commonplace than most people realize."

Check out this recent Op Ed in the NY Post to learn more about:

  • Exonerations of people who had pled guilty

  • The role of mandatory minimum sentences

  • The role of the "trial penalty" - and how few felony convictions are decided at trial

  • Racial disparities in policies that coerce guilty pleas

  • The Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act introduced in New York State

It's not actually a mystery why innocent people plead guilty. It's not a failure of the system, which is working as-designed. But it is an outrageous failure of justice. It irrevocably harms individuals, families, and communities. Taxpayers pay to incarcerate and monitor innocent people. Actual perpetrators aren't pursued.

If we want different results, we need to change laws, policies, and practices that incentivize self-incrimination. New York State's Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act is a step in the right direction.

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