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Crime & Justice

Researchers say plea bargains actually send innocent defendants to jail

Brian Banks, exonerated of rape, pled
Brian Banks, exonerated of rape, pled "no contest" to charges as a teenager. Researchers say many innocent people take plea deals.

Wrongful convictions happen fairly regularly, it seems, from examining statistics from the University of Michigan's Law School. What's more shocking is how many people actually plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit.

Brian Banks is probably the most famous recent example. The young man, once a football star at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, spent over five years in prison for rape. Last month, a judge exonerated Banks, clearing both his name and possibly his path to a professional sports career. 

One of the hardest questions to answer about Banks' case (and there are several) is why the then-17-year-old pled "no contest" to the charges instead of fighting what folks are now saying was a porous case against him. Outside the Long Beach courthouse in May, moments after being exonerated, Banks told reporters he had taken the plea deal out of fear: attorneys had told him if he didn't, he could have been sentenced to life in prison. 

The most common way cases are handled once they're charged is through plea bargains, and reseach suggests that innocent people pleading guilty is actually common. 

In a new study Vanessa Edkins, an assistant professor of psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology, and Lucian Dervin, an assistant professor of law at Southern Illinois University, call this phenomenon experienced by Banks, "plea bargaining's innocence problem." 

In their study, Edkins and Dervin set up college students by enrolling them in a "logic" study, administering a test and then accusing them of knowingly cheating on it. After being accused of cheating, individual students were offered two choices: if the student admitted they'd cheated, they would lose their promised compensation for participating in the study; if they didn't admit they'd cheated and an academic review board found them guilty, they'd not only lose their compensation, but their faculty advisor would be informed and they'd be enrolled in a mandatory ethics course. 

In the course of the study, over half (56.4 percent) of the students wrongfully accused of cheating chose to plead guilty.

The students, researchers wrote, "simply wanted to go home," much like criminal defendants who while they may be innocent, choose to plead guilty for a lesser sentence that either sends them home right away (like probation) or sooner than if they fight their charge and lose (like in Banks' case). 

Applying that finding to the approximately 96 percent of criminal defendants who take plea bargains, researchers wrote, "it is time for the [U.S. Supreme] Court to reevaluate the constitutionality of the institution."