Why Are There So Many Guilty Pleas in SC Criminal Courts?

by | Oct 19, 2017 | Criminal Defense |

It’s a fact that most criminal cases result in plea bargains and not trials. As many as 95-97% of cases depending on the jurisdiction. Why?

If you believe that 95-97% of criminal defendants in South Carolina are guilty, you are wrong. If all of them are not guilty, why are so many people pleading guilty?

Here’s why…

The huge percentage of guilty pleas and the unknown percentage of those pleas that are entered into by innocent defendants is a result of the tremendous and unequal power that prosecutors have over defendants. Part of the power wielded by prosecutors is the ability to control a defendant’s access to trials and the inability of many defendants to bond out of jail while they wait for their trial.

What is a Plea Bargain?

Although our system is, theoretically, based on the notion that every person is “innocent until proven guilty,” most defendants never see a jury and the prosecutor does not have to present the proof of guilt to a court.

A plea bargain is any “deal” that is reached with a prosecutor that avoids a trial. Prosecutors may dismiss some charges in exchange for a plea to others, or prosecutors may agree to recommend a more lenient sentence than a defendant would have received if they had lost their case at trial.

There are some cases where prosecutors do not make a meaningful plea offer. Whether there is a plea offer and what that plea offer is may depend on the strength of the state’s case, whether there is an alleged victim, whether there is media coverage of the defendant’s case, whether the defendant is “cooperating” against co-defendants or others, or how much pressure the prosecutors and courts are under to clear crowded dockets.

Prosecutors Control the Criminal Docket in South Carolina

In 2012, the S.C. Supreme Court held in State v. Langford that § 1-7-330 of the S.C. Code, which gives complete control of the criminal docket to the prosecutors, is unconstitutional and violates the S.C. Constitution’s Separation of Powers Clause.

What if, on the civil side of the courts, the plaintiff’s attorneys alone had the power to decide which cases went to trial, when they were called to trial, and which judge they appeared in front of? Doesn’t sound fair, does it?

Despite State v. Langford and the administrative orders that followed, prosecutors still control the docket in South Carolina. If you are sitting in a jail cell waiting for your trial, a judge will not get involved until late in the process, and then, a judge may only get involved if your attorney is filing motions for a speedy trial and pressing the issue.

What if I’ve Been Arrested and I Can’t Afford to Pay Bond?

Your attorney can file a motion to get your bond reduced. If that is not done or if the court does not reduce your bond, you will sit in a jail cell until your case is called for trial or you plead guilty.

What happens when an innocent person is charged with a crime and held in a jail cell pending trial?

If they know that it could take years before their case is called for trial, they will most likely be looking for any route home even if it means admitting to something that they did not do.

How does this give a prosecutor unfair power over defendants?

  • When the prosecutor threatens more time in prison if the defendant does not plead guilty and accept a lesser charge.
  • When a prosecutor offers a plea to time served or probation knowing that the defendant has no other way to get out of jail.
  • When the prosecutor waits for years to call a case for trial knowing that the defendant cannot get out of jail.

How Do Prosecutors Force Guilty Pleas from Jail Defendants?

South Carolina prosecutors periodically conduct “mass arraignments,” where they will put a defendant in front of the judge and make a plea offer. If the defendant does not accept the plea offer, the prosecutor and judge (and often the defense attorney) make sure that the defendant knows what the maximum possible penalties will be if they proceed to trial and pressure the defendant to plead guilty.

County jails across the state, including J. Reuben Long Detention Center in Conway, SC, are overcrowded with defendants who cannot afford to pay their bond but whose cases are not being called for trial. Prosecutors may offer a jail defendant a probationary sentence or even time served if they plead guilty and forego a trial, or they may offer a sentence of ten years while threatening life in prison if the defendant insists on going to trial.

Many defendants, separated from their families and afraid for their futures, faced with the prospect of long months or even years locked in a cell waiting for a trial, will take these plea offers just to get home more quickly even if they are innocent of the charges.

Would we have the same problem with overcrowding if the Courts controlled the docket and scheduled speedy trials for all non-complex criminal cases?

It’s true that many defendants will get less time in a plea offer than they would if they exercised their constitutional right to a trial by jury. This “trial tax” is an attempt by some judges to help prosecutors to clear their docket – is this how it should be?

Are You Waiting for Trial in Horry County?

Your Myrtle Beach criminal defense attorney at Coastal Law, LLC, can file motions to reduce your bond and speedy trial motions to ensure that your case will be heard more quickly or that you will not be locked in a cell while you wait.

If you do not want a trial, we will still investigate, review the evidence in your case, and prepare for trial while negotiating with your prosecutor.

If you are awaiting trial in the Horry, Richland, or Charleston County Jail and would like to discuss your case, contact us or have a family member or friend contact Coastal Law today at (843) 488-5000 or complete our online form.

 

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