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March 28, 2006

Newspaper article on the "trial penalty"

Monday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included this effective article about federal plea and sentencing realities, entitled "Plead guilty or go to trial? System unfairly rewards one, penalizes other, lawyers say."  Here is the article's introduction:

In the criminal justice system, defendants in federal court can be convicted one of two ways -- by pleading guilty or after a trial.  Those who choose to admit their guilt are often "rewarded" with lesser sentences.  Those who choose to take advantage of their Constitutional right to trials are often "penalized" with harsher sentences.

Prosecutors argue that guilty pleas are essential, and without them the system would be crippled by thousands of cases backlogged for trial. Further, they think that defendants who take responsibility for their crimes deserve to benefit.

Defense attorneys and some academics, though, argue that the system is so skewed that most clients are forced to accept pleas, knowing that if they take their chances at trial and lose, they will face sentences that are at least 25 percent higher.

March 28, 2006 at 01:58 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"Of course it leads to disparity and different sentences," said Mary Beth Buchanan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. "But it's supposed to. It's designed to give a reduction to those who readily take responsibility and admit their conduct."

Ah, so that's one of those "warranted sentencing disparities" I hear so much about but the courts never seem to find in real life. At least when it's the defense making the argument.

Posted by: JDB | Mar 28, 2006 4:47:51 PM

I thought the article missed the real issue.

Even before the guidelines, a defendant who pled guilty generally received a more lenient sentence than one who went to trial and lost. In that respect, the sentencing guidelines merely codified what judges had been doing all along.

The real "trial penalty" comes from prosecutors' discretion to drop or modify charges, to recommend a below-guidelines sentence, to recommend reductions for substantial cooperation, and to allow drug defendants to pierce mandatory minimums via the safety valve.

In comparison to all of these other factors that increase the risk premium for going to trial, a 2-3 level reduction for timely acceptance of resopnsibility is a minor factor.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Mar 31, 2006 12:29:00 PM

News articles are something really special! I like your post!

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