Why Do Innocent People Plead Guilty?

The criminal justice system in the United States is decidedly flawed. Every day, the criminal and civil justice systems convict innocent people, and every day guilty defendants go free, released from criminal and civil obligations. Innocent people (11%) have pleaded guilty to crimes for which they were exonerated by DNA evidence.

The law should be infallible, and in many instances that holds true. The legal system, though, is fallible and imperfect. Individuals accused of crimes plead guilty or no contest, even when innocent.

Most innocent people who plead guilty do so to avoid the risk of receiving a harsher penalty at trial, to reduce the cost of legal services, or to avoid the time spent during a lengthy criminal proceeding. Let’s briefly explore a few of the considerations an innocent defendant will face in deciding whether to take a plea deal or go trial:


A defendant in criminal proceedings has the right to a jury trial, which typically takes longer to adjudicate than a bench trial. The defendant may be free pending trial; however, in severe cases, the court may hold a defendant in jail indefinitely while awaiting trial. The length of the wait, uncertainty, and fear of long-term incarceration can take a toll on an innocent defendant, leading him or her to take plea deal.


In a legal sense, a plea is defined as a defendant’s response to a charge in criminal court. There are typically three types of pleas: guilty, not guilty, and nolo contendere (no contest), in which a defendant does not quantify guilt or innocence but agrees to accept a judge’s verdict.

The longer a legal proceeding plays out, the greater the likelihood an innocent defendant may accept a plea deal or enter a no-contest plea. Risks are involved in any trial, so accepting a guilty or no-contest plea, paying a fine, and perhaps having to do a small amount of jail time may be better than risking a longer-term prison sentence or higher fine. The decision to accept a plea deal can change the course of someone’s life.


People charged with crimes who want to clear their name and exonerate themselves should know that the odds of reversing a court case or expunging a conviction on appeal or review are very low. As infallible as the legal system is meant to be, the humans who carry out justice are imperfect.

A guilty plea can stay with you forever, affecting employment opportunities, financial stability, and every facet of your life and interpersonal relationships.


Prosecutors have very few restrictions when offering plea deals; essentially, their only legal restrictions is that they cannot use force or illegal threats while bargaining with the defendant. Criminal justice reformers are exploring two options for reforming plea bargaining:

  1. Providing more protection to the defendant
  2. Simplifying the jury trial process

If you are innocent but face criminal charges, you need the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney.