While the Constitution supposedly ensures everyone is afforded a fair trial, a new paper by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) says that exercising the right to trial poses many high risks. Because of this, many federal criminal defendants are encouraged to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to prevent years or decades in prison.

The U.S. federal court system offers two strict options for federal criminal defendants. Defendants can either plead guilty and receive a less severe consequence, or they can exercise their right to a free trial and risk years in prisons. A new publication by the NACDL, “The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It”,  shows that innocent people are persuaded to plead guilty to escape the more severe penalty.

The NACDL cited one difficult case centered around life insurance policy purchases. The criminal defendants in question were Christian Allmendinger and Brent Oncale. Both men were partners and charged for the same crimes. While Oncale pleaded guilty, Allmendinger went to trial where Oncale testified against him. Allmendinger was found guilty and given a 45-year sentence. Initially given 10 years, Oncale’s sentence was reduced to 5 years after he testified against his former partner. The NACDL poses this example as to why the criminal justice system is rigged with incentives and loopholes.

The NACDL writes, “Guilty pleas have replaced trials for a very simple reason: individuals who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial face exponentially higher sentences if they invoke the right to trial and lose. Faced with this choice, individuals almost uniformly surrender the right to trial rather than insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, defense lawyers spend most of their time negotiating guilty pleas rather than ensuring that police and the government respect the boundaries of the law including the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, and judges dedicate their time to administering plea allocutions rather than evaluating the constitutional and legal aspects of the government’s case and police conduct.”

Notably, the criminal justice system is also unable to accommodate the current caseload if all defendants decided to exercise their right to a fair trial.