Nearly every person or entity involved with the American criminal justice system is aware of the existence of the so-called “trial penalty.” This penalty refers to the harsher sentences imposed on criminal defendants who exercise their right to a trial compared to those who accept plea bargains. There is little question that some form of a trial penalty is acceptable, but a new report from a national organization of defense attorneys suggests that the differences in sentences have become so severe that the penalty is threatening the right to a trial guaranteed by the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.
The Sixth Amendment
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…” The amendment also guarantees a defendant the right to face the witnesses against him or her, as well that the right to legal counsel.
In any accepted plea bargain, a criminal suspect waives his or her right to a trial—often in exchange for reduced charges and a lesser sentence. How much the charges are reduced and how much of a lesser sentence have become serious concerns for defense lawyers and criminal defendants across the country.
A New Report
Earlier this month, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released a report called The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It. The report was the result of more than two years of research that looked back on more than 50 years of case results in the United States. According the report, the rate of federal criminal cases that go to trial has been dropping for the last half-century. Less than 3 percent of such cases go to trial today at the federal level, and about 6 percent of state criminal cases do. About 20 percent of federal criminal cases went to trial just 30 years ago.
One of the most troubling practices that contributes to the severe trial penalty, according to the report, is that prosecutors tend to threaten charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences if a defendant does not accept a plea bargain. For example, most Class 1 felonies in Illinois carry a mandatory minimum prison sentence of at least four years. A prosecutor could threaten to charge a defendant with a Class 1 felony count of criminal sexual assault unless the suspect pleads guilty to a Class A misdemeanor for criminal sexual abuse. The disparity between the two charges—and their respective sentences—would make any defendant think about waiving the right to trial and pleading guilty, even if they did not commit the crime.
The report suggests that eliminating such threats would go a long way in making the trial penalty more reasonable. Other suggested ways to mitigate the problem include requiring full discovery before a guilty plea can be entered and including a judge in the plea negotiation process.
Call Us for Help
If you have been charged with a crime and you are being pressured to plead guilty, contact an experienced Kane County criminal defense attorney. Call 847-488-0889 for a free consultation at The Law Offices of Brian J. Mirandola today and get the guidance you need before you make any life-changing decisions.