More than 95% of convictions in America are reached through plea bargains, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in return for leniency. Many convictions also depend on the testimony of a “co-operating witness”, who snitches for the same reason. Defenders of the system argue that it is efficient. By avoiding long, costly trials, America can lock up lots of villains. Without plea deals, the courts would be swamped according to “>the Economist.
Prosecutors hold all the cards. If a defence lawyer offers a witness $100 for a false alibi, he is guilty of bribery. But if a prosecutor offers a co-operating witness something far more valuable—the chance to avoid several years in a cell—that is just fine. With so much at stake, snitches sometimes tell prosecutors what they want to hear. One study found that nearly half of the cases in which people have been wrongfully sentenced to death hinged on false testimony by informants, typically criminals who were rewarded with lighter punishments.
Eric Holder, the attorney-general, who announced his retirement on September 25th (see article), has urged federal prosecutors not to seek such harsh sentences in some drug cases. But only some; and state prosecutors are still free to threaten defendants with terrifying punishments if they fail to plead guilty or implicate others. A federal judge recently guessed that thousands of innocent Americans could be stuck behind bars because of coercive plea bargaining.