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A prominent New York federal judge said this week that a broken guilty plea system is sending too many people innocent people to prison, coerced by the threat of long prison sentences and not enough information.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff said the modern American system in which 97 percent of defendants plead guilty “is totally different from what the founding fathers had in mind.” Rakoff elaborated on his concerns during an interview with the New York Daily News, a month after he first raised the issue during a speech at the University of Southern California.
Rakoff blamed draconian mandatory minimum sentences for coercing defendants into accepting plea deals, forcing defendants to “choose between Satan and Lucifer.” He cited estimates that between 1 and 8 percent of those who plead guilty are actually innocent. Even if that percentage were just 0.5 percent, that would be 10,000 people, he tells the New York Daily News.
We only know about a fraction of this population, and they are particularly difficult to identify, since many defendants consider their case finalized once they make the calculation to enter a plea. In 2013, 87 people were exonerated — 17 percent for false guilty pleas.
Chris Ochoa, now exonerated, explained that he was coerced by a threat even greater than a mandatory minimum — capital punishment — if he didn’t confess. “After many hours of interrogation and threats I was just worn down and I told them what I wanted to hear,” he said, noting that he later agreed to plead guilty.
Rakoff isn’t optimistic that mandatory minimum sentences will be eliminated, even if they are reformed at the federal level. So he is also proposing a more formal plea bargain process in which “junior judges” would oversee talks between prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers. The mini-proceeding would include a presentation of evidence and a non-binding recommendation from the judge. He hasn’t yet articulated a formal proposal.
Rakoff has never shied from controversy. In 2002, he declared the federal death penalty statute unconstitutional — and was quickly overturned. And last year, he blasted the U.S. Justice Department for not prosecuting Wall Street executives. But he also contributes his perspective as a former criminal defense attorney, a decreasingly common credential for federal judicial nominees in a field that is overwhelmed by lawyers with corporate backgrounds.