Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Price of Trials

Monday's edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an interesting article about an aspect of federal criminal law that most outside of the system don't know about: the great incentive for defendants to give up their right to a trial. It all stems from (as most evil things do in the federal system) from the Sentencing Guidelines. One of the few offense level decreases available in the Guidelines is called "acceptance of responsibility." While it is not directly tied to whether or not you go to trial, in the vast majority of cases it is available only to those who plead guilty.

The theory behind that setup is fairly good - in a system that still at least pays lip service to rehabilitation, it is good to reward a criminal defendant for stepping up and admitting his illegal conduct, as that is the first step on the road to redemption. The reality is somewhat different, however, as the prospect of losing acceptance causes many defendants to not risk going to trial, lest they lose (whether a trial is a "close case" or not is largely irrelevant to whether a defendant gets acceptance - you lose it if you go to trial). As a result, the decision about whether to go to trial is not made on the basis of the evidence available to the Government or what that evidence might prove, but on the risk/reward analysis of going to trial.

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