News 03.01.16

‘We created this monster and it’s taken on a life of its own’: New York Federal Judge Calls out Peers for Reliance on Plea Deal System

Last Friday, Federal Judge for the Southern District of New York Jed Rakoff said that the criminal justice’s plea bargaining system in the United States is unjust, excessive and one that is “so totally un-transparent, [it is] inevitably going to lead to some serious mistakes.” Judge Rakoff made these comments during a speech he made last Friday at John Jay College. He was speaking there as part of a two-day symposium, “Making Room for Justice: Crime, Public Safety & the Choices Ahead for Americans.”

According to Rakoff, in recent decades, the criminal justice system’s increasing reliance on plea bargains has led to a “system of totally secret justice” where prosecutors have all the power and even innocent defendants are pressured into accepting plea bargains over going to trial, reports the

Crime Report

, because the stakes have become too high for those who go to court. At trial, public defense attorneys have neither the time nor the resources to always adequately represent their clients. Sadly, defendants who are found guilty then risk receiving unreasonably lengthy prison terms. Ultimately, according to Rakoff, this trend has “fueled mass incarceration,” writes the

Crime Report


It’s also contributed to innocent people going to prison. Ten percent of the 337 people exonerated by DNA in the United States initially pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. According to the

Crime Report

, on a panel following Judge Rakoff’s speech, Board President of the Georgia Innocence Project Julie Seaman said that within our criminal justice system, “it’s completely rational for an innocent person to plead guilty,” especially when going to court presents unacceptable risks.  

Rakoff says that judges are largely responsible for the growing acceptance of “settling” for plea bargains as opposed to going to trial, writes the

Crime Report

, and that he’s afraid of what the repercussions will be.

“It’s very worrisome to me. Who is going to judge the judges? It will be history,” said Rakoff on Friday. “And right now I’m very worried that the verdict of history about the attitude of judges toward jail will not be very favorable.”

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