One of the cornerstones of the American justice system is the idea that every criminal defendant facing serious charges has the right to a presumption of innocence and a trial by jury. So why, then, do the majority of defendants accept a plea deal instead of insisting on their rights?
It may be something known, generously, as the “guilty plea discount.” The idea is that the defendants know that they’re likely to be found guilty at trial so they save the prosecutor the trouble by pleading guilty. In return, the prosecutor agrees to lower the charges or recommend a lenient sentence (or both).
However, this “discount” also goes by a much more sinister term. When viewed from another angle, it’s called the “trial tax” that is so-often imposed on defendants who do assert their rights. Refuse a plea deal and a defendant may see new charges tacked onto their list of offenses. Insist on a trial and get the maximum sentence allowed, if you’re found guilty, instead of the sort of sentence you might expect for a first offense.
Prosecutors in white-collar cases are increasingly using these tactics. The American Bar Association took note of the fact that actress Lori Loughlin is now facing new, more serious charges in the college admissions scheme after rejecting a plea deal. (Those who took a plea deal quickly have seen lenient sentences.)
How bad is the trial tax? Estimates vary, but your odds of being imprisoned if you’re convicted can be six times greater than those taking a deal. Your sentence may be longer, too, by as much as 60%.
If you’ve been accused of a white-collar crime, make sure that you discuss all of your legal options — and their possible consequences — before you decide how to proceed.