WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
February 02 2023
WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO

Young defendants pressured to plead guilty in 20 minutes

Young defendants pressured to plead guilty in 20 minutes

Pic: Patrick Maguire
Self Portrait: Patrick Maguire

A report by criminal justice watchdog Fair Trials revealed that young people are under tremendous pressure to enter guilty pleas. Young defendants are often given in as little as 20 to 30 minutes to make a decision, often without fully comprehending the potentially life-altering repercussions of doing so.

The majority of defendants in England and Wales do not stand trial in court due to entering guilty pleas. A significant number of these individuals are young adults aged 18-24 years old, illustrating the criminal justice system’s significant overrepresentation of people this age. Fair Trials conducted research over the last year highlighting the experiences of those who chose such plea agreements as young adults. The research collected testimonials from persons serving jail sentences and spoke with those who had been criminal defendants as young adults. The research aimed to understand how young adults made such judgments, what support they received to aid their choices and the effect of their plea deals.

Most of the individuals interviewed admit to the offences they are charged with. Yet, according to research, even in their 20s, individuals still lack fully developed decision-making skills, leaving them open to guilty pleas based on incomplete information – whether they deem themselves guilty or not.

In addition, a considerable level of mistrust and lack of support from lawyers and the legal system was highlighted by the investigation. ‘I think there’s very much a lack of support [there], said one individual. With this approach, many young people opt to seek assistance and guidance from other defendants and inmates.

It must be acknowledged that lawyers are busy and underpaid. This is impeding their capacity to give young people the support and advice they need to make educated decisions about their pleas, as evidenced by the current barristers’ strike. This reflects the wider issue of the government’s treatment of criminal defence lawyers.

Bruno Min, the Fair Trials’ Legal Director (UK & International), said on the matter:

“Young people have told us about a criminal justice system that is failing to give them the knowledge, information and support they needed to make the right decisions. Their experiences highlight the broader systemic failures that are undermining justice in England and Wales.

“No one should be coerced into pleading guilty to an offence they have not committed but the government has been introducing laws that incentivise more people to plead guilty and avoid a trial. Efficiency should not be prioritised over justice.”

The report concludes by setting out recommendations that reflect the key observations of Fair Trials. It recommends improving the quality of legal assistance and legal professionals’ capabilities, changes to the Sentencing Guidelines to remove incentives for early guilty pleas, and, holistically, addressing the root causes of ‘criminal’ behaviour. The recommendations are comprehensive but do not identify all necessary legal and policy changes that must be made to ‘solve’ the difficulties.

Might it be said that this report gives truth to the axiom that ‘like laws and sausages, plea bargains are best made out of public view’?

(You can access the full report here)