In an effort to reduce lengthy prison sentences, a New York judge wants to reform the plea deal process in New York. Manhattan Federal Judge Jed Rakoff told the Daily News that too many innocent people go to prison because of cracks in the criminal justice system and that judges should become more involved in the plea-deal process.
Judge Rakoff told the Daily News, “The current process is totally different from what the founding fathers had in mind,” because nearly all cases end in pleas.
Nationwide, 97 percent of federal defendants plead guilty instead of taking their chances at trial and 30 of the 316 people exonerated by DNA evidence had entered a guilty plea. Rakoff estimates that up to 8 percent of the current prison population is innocent or partially innocent but locked up because of guilty pleas.
Rodney Roberts was exonerated in New Jersey earlier this year and pled guilty to avoid life in prison for a sexual assault. In response to Roberts’ experience, Rakoff is proposing a model, which would start as a pilot program, that would designate junior judges to hear evidence and issue plea bargain recommendations early on in cases. His suggestion is for “magistrate judges” in the federal system to hear from prosecutors and defense lawyers separately before making a nonbinding recommendation on sentencing.
Rakoff said that his proposed program would bring awareness to plea bargaining and relieve pressure on defendants deciding whether to risk a longer sentence by heading to trial.
“When people hear about crime going up they want higher penalties,” Rakoff told the Daily News. “When they hear about crime going down they see the higher penalties as working, and they may be right because we’re locking up a lot of guilty people along with some innocent people.”
A proposal has yet to be formalized.
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