People accused of committing crimes in Florida and around the country have the right to a speedy and public trial before an impartial jury, but very few of them actually avail themselves of this right. A report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2022 revealed that 97.5% of federal criminal defendants waive their right to a trial and plead guilty, and plea agreements are just as common in state courts. Some defendants plead guilty because the evidence against them is overwhelming, but many people accused of committing crimes plead guilty because they fear what is known as the trial penalty.
The trial penalty
The trial penalty refers to the much harsher sentences that are handed down when juries return a guilty verdict. According to advocacy groups that have studied the data, defendants convicted after a trial spend three times longer behind bars. Fear of the trail penalty often leads to great miscarriages of justice. The Innocence Project has exonerated more than 3,000 wrongly convicted individuals, and more than a quarter of them pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.
The End the Trial Penalty Coalition
Concerns over unfair sentencing has led to an unlikely alliance of civil rights organizations, justice reform groups and criminal defense attorneys. The End the Trial Penalty Coalition, which was launched on May 3, seeks to reform sentencing in federal and state courts and eliminate the trial penalty. The groups making up the coalition include the American Civil Liberties Union, Right on Crime, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Exculpatory evidence and appeals
The criminal justice system is designed to protect the innocent rather than punish the guilty, but that is not the way it currently operates. Defendants who enter into plea agreements because they fear the trail penalty usually waive their right to appeal, and prosecutors rarely share evidence with them or their attorneys after they plead guilty. These are things that the End the Trial Penalty Coalition wishes to change.