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Plea bargains are not always a good deal

An article in the Albuquerque Journal on July 11 addressed problems with the administration of the criminal judicial system in the 12th Judicial District – “Public defenders in southern NM sound the alarm.”

Particularly noteworthy were the last couple lines of the story: “District Attorney (Scot D.) Key rejected the suggestion that people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. ‘We have no interest whatsoever in convicting innocent people,’ Key said. ‘I don’t believe for a minute that people would plead to things they didn’t do.'”

District Attorney Key might not believe it “for a minute,” but people do plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The National Registry of Exonerations currently lists 345 people who pleaded guilty and were later exonerated. …

For the vast majority of those who plead guilty there is no realistic prospect of exoneration, no matter how innocent they might be. Key’s flat denial flies in the face of literally hundreds of well-known existing counterexamples. There is plenty of room for disagreement over how to deal with the problems of enforcing the law, but the simplistic denial that problems exist is a bigger problem still.

The current criminal justice system is driven by plea bargains. Over nine out of 10 criminal convictions are the result of a plea bargain. Indeed, if there were no plea bargains the judicial system would grind to a near-halt since it does not have enough resources for all the trials that would be required. There are few, if any, rules controlling plea bargaining, largely because judges are fearful of interfering with a process that makes their workload manageable. District attorneys routinely lobby for harsher sentences so they can offer to reduce those sentences in exchange for guilty pleas.

Many people like to imagine that they would never plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. But imagine if you were accused of a crime you did not commit and had a choice to make. You could plead guilty and get probation. Or you could risk going to trial and, if you lost, spend years in prison and lose your job, your house, and quite possibly your family. Your decision might be made easier if your public defender attorney is trying to prepare for multiple trials to be held on one day and will not have time to investigate – let alone properly prepare for – your trial.

In theory plea bargaining has some advantages. It saves a great deal of work for those employed in the criminal legal system. In practice, however, it has some very real problems, at least for those accused of crimes. Simply refusing to believe that the problems exist might be good politics, but it is not a luxury that New Mexico can afford.

The opinions in this column are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the New Mexico Law Office of the Public Defender.

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