Rise of plea-bargaining coerces young defendants into guilty pleas, says report

<span>Photograph: Anthony Brown/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Anthony Brown/Alamy

Young prisoners in England and Wales are being rushed into guilty pleas under US-style bargaining arrangements, with some defendants said to be given just 30 minutes to decide, it is claimed.

Survey results and focus group discussions with those serving sentences has raised concerns about a lack of informed choice in a criminal justice system that incentivises an early guilty plea.

The model of plea bargaining, made famous courtesy of US courtroom dramas, where defendants effectively negotiate with prosecutors over charges and potential sentences is increasingly being followed around the world.

Such bargaining is not officially part of the system in England and Wales, except in complex fraud cases, but the judicial sentencing guidelines suggests those who plead guilty at the earliest hearing over other crimes may be given a reduction of up to a third of their sentence. There is a sliding scale of sentence reductions as criminal proceedings continue, and informal bargaining is widespread.

A report by the NGO Fair Trials offers anecdotal evidence that defendants are being offered little and rushed advice on their pleas, with scant judicial oversight over the decision-making, raising claims that some are being pushed to admit guilt to crimes they did not commit.

Unpublished data from the Criminal Cases Review Commission in England & Wales shows that of the 128 cases referred to the court of appeal as potential miscarriages of justice since 2012, approximately 50 cases involved defendants who initially pleaded guilty.

Before a court hearing, lawyers must follow guidelines on the level of information they give to their clients before making a guilty plea but there is no legal process to ensure that defendants understand their rights.

Unlike in the US, there is also no requirement on judges to thoroughly question a defendant to check that they have grasped the implications of pleading guilty before the plea is accepted.

One contributor to the report, named only as Faisal, said: “Even when you go to court, you don’t really get … what like 20-30 minutes with your solicitor before they call you up.

“They’re even rushing [you] sometimes. I can remember clear yeah, my solicitor has been rushing me sometimes like ‘We’re going to be putting up so gonna go guilty’ … ‘They’re probably going to give you this amount of time’ … ‘You’ll be out in duh duh duh’ … I feel like a lot of it is kind of pressured.”

A second, named as Amina, who had originally pleaded not guilty to charges against her but who became worried about the impact of the proceedings on her father’s health, said: “I wasn’t guilty so I should not have pleaded guilty but I had no support system or anyone to tell me they would fight for me for my innocence.”

The report, Young Minds, Big Decisions, based on a survey of 27 prisoners and group discussions with 12 people over the last year who had experience of the criminal justice system as young adults, notes that adults aged between 18 and 24 make up about a third of criminal cases in England and Wales.

The report says: “It is clear that many young people are not given adequate information to make their decisions on how to plead, or, where they are given such information, it is not provided in a way that it is easily understood.

“Many individuals felt that the pros and cons of entering a ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ plea were not properly explained to them, including the impact that such decisions could have on their rights and that they were given inaccurate or misleading advice about the potential outcomes of their cases. This often led them to make decisions that they later regretted.”

It adds: “Their accounts detail a system that is not only failing to equip young adults with the knowledge and information to make the best decisions for their cases and inducing them to plead guilty to offences they did not commit, but they also highlight broader systemic failures that impeded justice and fairness for defendants, irrespective of age or experience.”

A government spokesperson said: “Ensuring defendants plead guilty at the earliest possible opportunity means victims and witnesses do not have to relive their potentially traumatic experiences in court. Sentencing is a matter for independent judges, who have a duty to follow the guidelines set out by the Sentencing Council.”