Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How many innocent people plead guilty?

The defense blogger Blonde Justice takes on a fascinating question from a commenter: "what percent of people who say they're guilty really aren't?" Read her post and comments for a good discussion. Recounting a story about a client she believed was innocent who pled guilty to avoid jail time so he could start a new job the next day, Blondie declared,
it happens. I see it particularly where defendants are offered time served if they plead guilty or, in the alternative, they will be held on bail if they want to wait for a trial. And that can takes months or longer.
Her estimate came in on the high side of what I might have guessed: "I would say somewhere around 10-15% of the people who are pleading guilty are not, in fact guilty," she opined. A couple of other lawyer commenters put the number for their clients at about 10%


Two more attorneys said 95-98% of their clients were guilty of the offenses to which they pled, which still implies that 2-5% are innocent. That's a lot.

Another BJ commenter had actual data on the subject:
an awesome book on wrongful convictions put out by the UCBerkeley grad program in journalism and edited by Dave Eggers, "Surviving Justice," they write about a poll conducted among prosecutors all across the country. By their own very conservative estimates, they figured that something like 1% of all convicted people were literally, actually, factually innocent (like mistaken-identity, not even there, didn't know that person type innocent).
So the range of estimates among Blonde Justice commenters of the number of innocent defendants who confess or plea to crimes they don't commit ranged from 1-15%. (I'd be curious to hear the opinion of Alan Hirsch, who blogs at The Truth About False Confessions, on this subject.) Personally I might have guessed 1-2%, overall, and was surprised by the higher estimates. What do you think is the right number?

Statewide, roughly 3/4 of a million Texans - about one out of 20 adults - are in prison, on probation or on parole. So taking the low range of the estimates on Blonde Justice, if 1% of those folks didn't commit the crime, that would mean Texas currently has around 7,500 innocent people under control of the criminal justice system. If the figure really were as high as 10%, that would mean Texas had convicted 75,000 innocent people who are currently under state supervision! I hope that's a dramatic overestimate, but there's really no way to know.


Anonymous said...

" The criminal justice system in Texas is so cracked it makes an armadillo look smooth. " Dallas Morning News Editorial

Anonymous said...

It all depends on what you mean by innocent. Prosecutors bring pumped up the charges in order to get a plea agreement to a lesser charge.

Texans are frequently innocent of the charges i.e., felony assualt because the actual event didn't really qualify as a midemeanor.

My guess is the plea to the lesser charge results in a lot of cases where the individual was not guilty of the original charge and a loss in court would result in a 10 times longer sentence.

This leads to the question - guilty of what?

This practice truly denies due process to 98% of Texans charged with a crime. Without due process, I'd guess more than 15% under the control of the criminal justice authorities are innocent.

Gary Carson said...

Most innocent people who plead guilty aren't in prison, that's why they plead, a plea gets them out of jail when they can't make bail.

So your estimates of how many innocent people are locked up is way too high.

It's really hard to turn down an offer that is of the form that you get out for time served if you plead guilty and spend another 6 months in jail waiting for trial if you don't.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The estimate I gave, Gary, was actually based on the total "supervised" in the criminal justice system - the total number in prison, on probation and on parole. I agree, though, that the percentage of innocents who plea to probated sentences would be higher, and also higher for misdemeanors than felonies, for the same reason.

Anonymous said...

If I understand this post the guesstimates are based on polls of defense and prosecutors who give high and low guesses respectively. It would be hard to do a better study because most cases are cleared by plea bargains.

On the basis of the post I would say the percentage of innocent defendants who choose to plead guilty is likely to be between 5% and 10% for persons sentenced to probation and between 0% and 5% for those sentenced to prison. If those guesses are close this is a very costly failure of the CJ System.

Catonya said...

I bet it's higher when you consider charges of "resisting arrest" and "assault on an officer".

Most people would never believe how often those 2 charges are fabricated simply because the officer doesn't "like" the person being arrested.

"It's your word against the word of (however many) police officers - who do you think the jury will believe?" (direct quote of a defense attorney's reply to his client)

Anonymous said...

OK, what about the percentage of all Texans that have a criminal record who are in fact innocent?

I'll exclude Traffic Tickets and other low level misdemeanors.

How many thousands have had their lives ruined by a judicial system that does not work very well. Using the 80/20 rule, DA's figure if they are correct 80% of the time, they've done a good job. The other 20% are probably innocent and under the current system, that's just too bad!

Anonymous said...

In our county at least 4% of the charges are dismissed which I think would reduce the number of persons who would plead guilty to a simple misdemeanor. I know that many people plead guilty to a simple misdemeanor charge because it is the least costly option and they don't have to return for a trial. If they ask for a jury trial they will have to wait more than six months.

We have a statute called Interference with official acts (IWOA) that is so broad it covers resistance, interference and obstruction without defining any of them. It claims to exclude verbal insults but if the language is threatening then the statute applies. The cop can put anyone in jail for being a pain in the ass in a public place.

Normally one finds this charge in combination with public intoxication so the person pays a $500 fine instead of a $250 fine. I don't know if these kids are innocent but they are certainly clueless.

Unknown said...

You just have to view The Closer - a hit TNT series - to see how police get confessions. The only difference is that in The Closer we get to actually see the crime done. In real life we seldom get that luxury where we can justify these sleazy police tactics. After the confession we get the aside: there really isn't such a law and we don't have that evidence - but [wink, wink,nod, nod] "Good job"!

Barry Green said...

Actually innocent? I'd put the figure very low at around 1% to 2%.

But the number of people that take a plea who would have been found "not guilty" because the State could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt? I'd say 10%. Perhaps higher.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, Barry, that's still not "very low," even though I agree with your estimate. But consider if 2% of those under state supervision (prison, probation or parole) were actually innocent, that's still be ~15,000 people wrongly convicted.

As I said, I think percentages may be a little lower for serious felonies, higher for misdemeanors and charges resulting in probation. But 1%, even, would be a LOT of folks.

Anonymous said...

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jfm said...

innocent people are cohersed into making confessions in grimes county Texas