The “End the Trial Penalty Coalition” – composed of 24 top national civil rights and criminal justice groups – is campaigning to end the “trial penalty” – a system that results in longer sentences for defendants who go to trial, and in innocent arrestees pleading guilty just to avoid stiffer sentences. The coalition comprises diverse organizations, such as the Innocence Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, Right on Crime, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
Plea deals on the rise
The Sixth Amendment gives people the right to a fair trial by an impartial jury, yet, trials have become increasingly less common in recent years. Instead, thanks to the trial penalty, defendants typically agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lower sentence. In 2022, almost 98% of criminal cases in federal court ended in a plea bargain, according to a recent annual report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Plea bargains are often preferred due to their speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. However, the coalition says defendants who plead guilty aren’t told of the incriminating proof and have minimal appeal rights. Innocent defendants may also accept a plea bargain so spare themselves a longer sentence at trial. People convicted at trial may have sentences between seven to nine years or longer than those who accept plea deals.
“[The TV show] ‘Law And Order’ is always an investigation, prosecution, trial,” said Kevin Ring, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “In the real world, you’d have to watch 100 episodes just to see two to three trials.” That makes it all the more important that people charged with a criminal offense consult a reputable, experienced lawyer to help them achieve the best possible outcome.The Nunez Law Firm explains that a skilled criminal defense lawyer will thoroughly investigate the case, communicate with prosecutors as needed to ensure the evidence warrants the charges and negotiate for the lowest sentence possible in the instance of conviction.
A challenging road ahead
Changing the system won’t be easy, as collective efforts must tackle local, state, and federal courts. State legislatures will have to vote to end mandatory minimum prison sentences, while prosecutors will also have to start charging defendants differently. Similarly, defense lawyers will also have to provide clients with different advice. The coalition ultimately hopes to do away with (or at least reduce) mandatory minimum sentences and enable judges to reduce lengthy sentences better. They also want prosecutors to be legally required to provide defendants with the totality of the evidence against them – whether they do or don’t accept a plea deal.
The potential impact of overhauling the justice system in this way shouldn’t be underestimated – ultimately, a fairer system will be created. “I believe this will be a watershed moment for criminal justice in this country,” commented Norman Reimer, a coalition co-founder, and former NACDL executive director.