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Why do so many people plead guilty to white collar crimes?

While big trials make headlines, there are plenty of white collar criminal cases that get adjudicated through a plea deal. In fact, it's probably hard to look at the news, these days, without reading something about another white collar defendant who just pled guilty.

Why do so many white collar defendants accept plea deals? Is there just that much evidence against them? Are the prosecutors just that good?

Probably not.

In reality, white collar crimes are often complex and involve a lot of financial information -- so a lot of work has to be done to trace the money that's involved. That kind of work doesn't happen quickly -- and it doesn't come cheap. As a result, prosecutors push defendants into guilty pleas -- even though a trial might keep them out of jail entirely.

More than 97 percent of criminal defendants will take a plea deal instead of going to trial because they're afraid of being punished for exercising their civil rights. If they're convicted, they fear that the sentence they'll receive will only partially reflect the crime -- and partially reflect the ire of the prosecution over having to fight the case in court.

The problem is that the defendants may be right to be worried. The guidelines used for sentencing in federal cases are intentionally severe -- they're designed to discourage others from trying the same thing. So, it's a logical step to think that prosecutors and judges will use the same tactic to deter people from exerting their rights and making the state prove its case.

Investigations into the disparities that happen in criminal cases reveal some startling examples of what can happen when a defendant doesn't "go along" with prosecutors and take a plea. For example, two men were charged in a case involving insurance fraud. One took a guilty plea and received a 10-year sentence. That was reduced to five after he testified against his partner. His partner, who insisted on a trial, was given a 45-year sentence for the exact same crimes.

Defense attorneys have long believed -- and now have credible evidence -- that defendants are often coerced into accepting plea bargains -- even when it isn't in their best interests. That's why, if you're accused of a financial crime, it may be wiser than ever to consider all your choices carefully.

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