As a criminal defense lawyer, I regularly meet with people who wonder how they or someone they love could be charged with a criminal offense, when they are innocent. I'm always a little bit shocked by the naivety that they display when asking this, but at the same time I understand their feelings. Those of us who defend the accused, are used to seeing people that we truly believe are innocent, have their lives upended by the criminal court system. People with no experience with the criminal justice system are often shocked to see what becomes commonplace for those of us who are involved. The truth is that prosecutors charge innocent people with criminal offenses all the time. They don't know one way or the other who is innocent or guilty, and so they simply file the charges and let the system or jury sort it out.
I recently had a case where a young girl made an accusation of improper contact against my client. The accusation was that he touched her buttocks and laid on her. The police interviewed the victim and thought she was credible, they also interviewed my client and thought he was credible. My client offered to take a polygraph examination, which the police had asked him if he would take, but they sent the case to the prosecutor for filing, without ever doing the polygraph. Of course polygraph examinations are not infallible, and generally they are not admissible in court, but it could be helpful in a case like this. So we end up with two credible citizens telling stories that are the opposite. Only one ends up charged with a crime and forced to defend himself in court, while facing significant prison time if he fails. The other simply gets to go home, one way or the other.
I was recently reminded of this while reading a good article in the Washington Post that you can read here. The article discussed the reasons that prosecutors file charges against innocent persons. Some of those reasons are political pressure from holding an elective office, pressure from those who perceive that they are victims of crime, and unwillingness to investigate themselves before filing charges. In many cases it is just easier to file charges and see what happens.
If prosecutors just file charges to see what happens, our society runs a risk. A risk that someone who is charged won't have money to post bail and will lose their housing, employment, and place in life. We all are in a tenuous position, and anyone who is only a few paychecks away from the street will soon find themselves there, if they spend a few months in custody while waiting for their trial. We also run a risk that they will not be able to secure competent counsel to defend themselves. To hire a good lawyer to defend someone accused of a Class A felony sex case, for instance, a person will spend tens of thousands of dollars on their defense. If they don't have the resources to hire such an attorney, society as a whole has to fund their defense and provide them with a public defender. Public defenders are overworked as it is, to have them doing the investigation that police and prosecutors should be doing.
There are many people who are charged with an offense that they did not commit, and who end up pleading guilty as part of a "plea bargain" in order to avoid the risk of a trial. They cannot stand to run the risk of spending decades in prison, so they elect to spend years instead. This also comes at a great cost to society, as they must pay to house and support the convicts in prison, and usually afterwards as well when they are not able to secure gainful employment. The other cost is to our ideals, as it is difficult to believe in a system that is based on pressure and threats, and forces those who are truly innocent to lose their place in society before they ever get a chance to prove their innocence.