According to this article, 95% of inmates in the U.S. have never received a trial, choosing a plea bargain to avoid potentially punitive sentencing if found guilty.

The reality is that almost no one who is imprisoned in America has gotten a trial,” explains award-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, in a recent Truthdig column. “There is rarely an impartial investigation. A staggering 97 percent of all federal cases and 95 percent of all state felony cases are resolved through plea bargaining.” Of those millions who bargained away their right to a trial by accepting plea deals, “significant percentages of them are innocent.”

Is this true? Have any reliable studies been performed to validate this number?

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    The quote suggests a second question - whether plea bargaining is more likely to result in innocent people going to jail. Should this be asked in a second question? – indigochild Jan 26 '16 at 3:10
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    Yes, that should be a different question IMO. And there's a third implied question: Does a plea bargain [..] avoid potentially punitive sentencing? – Jan Doggen Jan 26 '16 at 10:13
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    Note that there is a difference between the claim and the related question. The claim from the quote is that 95% of the cases are resolved with a plea bargain and not that 95% of the inmates in U.S. prisons have not received a trial. Assuming that plea bargains are more commonly used for less serious offenses (which seems supported by the data table in indigochild's answer) and that plea bargains are settled with shorter jail sentences or even fines compared to actual court cases, the ratio of inmates will be potentially much lower than the ratio of cases settled with a plea bargain. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 26 '16 at 15:43
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    How can the author know that "significant percentages of them are innocent"? They've pleaded guilty and there's been no trial to prove otherwise, so is the author just taking their word for it when they say they're innocent? – A E Jan 26 '16 at 21:43
up vote 23 down vote accepted

The Bureau of Justice Statistics(part of the Department of Justice) publishes tables of felony convictions by type of conviction. Here is one such report from 2002, which shows that about 5% of incarcerated felons in prison that year received a trial. (Source: BJS, State Court Sentencing of Convicted Felons)

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A slightly more comprehensive article about plea bargaining, released by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (also part of DoJ) explains more about the process. They also cite some academic literature. I didn't review the academic article cited, but BJA claims that their results show a similar result (that 90-95% of inmates pled guilty) (Source: BJA, Plea and Charge Bargaining).

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    In your last sentence, do you mean that 90-95% of inmates pled guilty? – Paul Johnson Jan 26 '16 at 11:17
  • Yes I did. Thanks! – indigochild Jan 26 '16 at 13:55
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    I don't think the table in the answer is limited to people who are or were incarcerated. For example, drug possession conviction, which only has a 2% trial rate, would be much less likely to involve incarceration, than murder, which has a 32% trial rate. – DavePhD Jan 29 '16 at 14:21

This article covers the ground well. We have no real estimates of the number of innocent people who plead guilty, because part of the bargain is that you never subsequently say "I was really innocent but I took a plea because....". However there is little doubt that the number is significant. The key points are:

  1. In many cases the Prosecutor can effectively decide on the length of the sentence by deciding how many crimes to charge you with and manipulating the sentencing "guidelines" to select whatever sentence they want.

  2. Most defendants are poor so they can't afford to hire their own attorney. Instead they get an over-worked and under-resourced public defender who will turn up at the trial, do a pro-forma cross examination of the prosecution witnesses, and watch his client go down. Public defenders have no time or money to start hunting down possible defense witnesses or subpoenaing records. So even if you are innocent, there is a real fear that you won't be able to persuade the jury.

  3. Most defendants are poor, so they can't make bail. In theory they have the right to a speedy trial, but the system often doesn't work like that. And even if you did get a trial after only 3 months, in many cases that already means you have lost your rented house and your job. Also, being on the inside makes it much harder to sort out your defense.

  4. The prosecutors don't like cases that go to trial because it means a lot of extra work, and they aren't much better funded than the public defenders. So the prosecution has a strong incentive to offer a huge discount for a plea deal. If you can't make bail, its often the case that a guilty plea will result in less time behind bars than being found innocent at trial. Aaron Schwartz was charged with offenses carrying a maximum of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines (in practice he would probably have been sentenced to around 10 years if found guilty). But he was offered a plea deal of 6 months in prison. Schwartz took the third option and committed suicide. Ross Ulbricht (the Silk Road mastermind) went to trial and got life without parole. Meanwhile Carl Force (one of the corrupt agents who took money from Ulbricht) took a plea deal and got 5 and a half years.

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