CRIME

Tens Of Thousands Of Innocent People Have Pled Guilty, Judge Jed Rakoff Says

05/29/2014 03:55 pm ET

A federal judge said America's broken justice system is forcing innocent people to spend years in prison.

Judge Jed Rakoff, who sits on the Federal District Court in Manhattan, said tens of thousands of innocent people are pleading guilty because they fear they will serve much longer sentences in prison if they don't cooperate with prosecutors.

This week, Rakoff told the Daily News that between 1 and 8 percent of inmates in prison are locked up because they entered into false plea agreements, according to several estimates.

The News notes that, even if that number is .5 percent, that means more than 10,000 people are doing time for offenses they pleaded guilty to but didn't commit.

"The criminal justice system is nothing like you see on TV — it has become a system of plea bargaining,” Rakoff said during a lecture last month at the University of Southern California. "Plea bargains have led many innocent people to take a deal.”

Rakoff said the way the process is currently structured gives prosecutors all the cards. They can hold lengthy mandatory minimum sentences over defendants' heads and entice them to take deals. Only about 3 percent of cases end up at trial.

"People accused of crimes are often offered five years by prosecutors or face 20 to 30 years if they go to trial," Rakoff said. "The prosecutor has the information, he has all the chips … and the defense lawyer has very, very little to work with. So it’s a system of prosecutor power and prosecutor discretion. I saw it in real life [as a criminal defense attorney], and I also know it in my work as a judge today.”

Rakoff said mandatory minimums should be eliminated and prosecutors' roles in plea bargaining should be reduced.

Another option, he said, is putting judges at the center of the plea process.

"What I have in mind is a magistrate judge or a junior judge would get involved,” Rakoff said. “He would take offers from the prosecutor and the defense. … He would evaluate the case and propose a plea bargain if he thought that was appropriate, and he might, in appropriate cases, say to the prosecutor, ‘You don’t have a case and you should drop it.’ This would be very difficult for the judiciary; it’s not something I come to lightly, but I can’t think of any better solution to this problem.”

As Think Progress notes, Rakoff is no stranger to 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.

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