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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 26, 2003

Bibas Calls For End To Nolo Contendere, Alford Pleas

University of Iowa law professor Stephanos Bibas believes it's time for the justice system to eliminate nolo contendere and Alford pleas, which allow criminal defendants to plead guilty without actually admitting guilt.

Bibas believes the pleas allow defendants to get off too easily and deny the public a stage in which to perform a sort of morality play. In addition, it denies innocent defendants an opportunity to clear themselves at trial by allowing them to accept a plea bargain rather than risk being convicted of a more severe crime.

"They allow guilty defendants to avoid accepting responsibility for their wrongs," said Bibas, a former federal prosecutor, in an article published recently in the Cornell Law Review. "Their refusal to admit guilt impedes their repentance, education, and reform, as well as victims' healing process."

Defenders of nolo and Alford pleas point out that they help speed up the legal process by clearing the court dockets of a large number of cases without costly and time-consuming trials. About 5 percent of cases in federal courts and 17.5 percent of the cases in state courts are disposed of by Alford and nolo pleas.

While Bibas understands that argument from a pragmatic standpoint, he believes it betrays the judicial system's ultimate responsibility to determine who's telling the truth and finding a person guilty or innocent. As a result, public confidence in the justice system is eroded because people don't know if an offender is going to jail for an actual crime or simply because it was the easiest way for the court to handle the case.

It also deprives the public of the "morality play" of a trial, he said. A trial not only serves as an outlet for the public and the crime victim's outrage, it also sends the message that criminals will pay for their sins. Bibas argues that nolo and Alford pleas also let defendants off the hook psychologically and morally, as they can continue to insist on their innocence and refuse to take responsibility for their crimes so that moral reform and repentance will be more difficult.

"Trials express respect for the law, communicate values, justify punishment, and encourage offenders to critically examine their acts," he said. "Moreover, convictions at trial vindicate victims and the community by denouncing offenders and reaffirming moral norms in the face of their transgressions."

Most unsettling to Bibas is the knowledge that many innocent defendants plead guilty because they fear they will be convicted of a more serious crime without realizing how difficult it is for prosecutors to gain a conviction.

"Although our system goes to great lengths to protect innocent defendants at trial, it perversely makes it too easy for them to plead guilty by allowing Alford and nolo contendere pleas," he said. "It should go without saying that it is wrong to convict innocent defendants. Thus, the law should hinder these convictions, instead of facilitating them through these pleas."

In their places, Bibas offers several solutions for those who plead guilty: lighter sentences for defendants who admit guilt freely and show their remorse; judges' insistence on more detailed confessions and more overtly moralistic language to drive home the wrongfulness of the crime; victims confronting the defendant in court; sentencing guidelines that are more expressly moral in their judgment of wrongdoing and less of a mathematical formulation.

"Implementing these substantive values will not be simple because they may be less convenient and might require more time and effort," Bibas said. "But the cheapest and fastest methods are not always the best. Criminal law should not be simply about locking up offenders cheaply."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010, tom-snee@uiowa.edu.