But a recent report issued by Human Rights Watch reveals that when it comes to federal drug crimes, prosecutors often use heavy-handed tactics to rob defendants of their right to a fair trial. Federal prosecutors have enormous power over which charges a defendant will face, and by extension, what their sentences will be if convicted. In 97 percent of federal drug cases, defendants plead guilty because prosecutors threaten to pursue lengthy sentences if defendants choose to take their case to trial.
Prosecutors have this leverage because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the option of additional charges and sentencing enhancements based on prior convictions. Human Rights Watch found that federal prosecutors often use the threat of unreasonably long sentences to coerce defendants into pleading guilty.
Those who choose to take their case to trial and lose face sentences that are, on average, 11 years longer than they would have been with a guilty plea. Sometimes the punishment for taking a case to trial is a de facto life sentence.
Take the case of a 53-year-old Texas woman with no previous criminal record. Prosecutors offered a plea deal of 17 years in prison if she were to plead guilty to dealing meth and to having guns in her house. Because she refused the offer and took the case to trial, she received a 45-year sentence upon conviction.
Because prosecutors are given this much power, judges often have to dole out sentences they believe to be unduly harsh. Mandatory minimums and other factors essentially do not allow judges to use their own discretion.
Hopefully, this Human Rights Watch report will fan the flames of an already heated debate over sentencing reform. Until or unless things change, however, defendants need to have a strong advocate in their corner. That's why anyone charged with drug crimes needs the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Source: National Public Radio News, "Report: Threat Of Mandatory Minimums Used To Coerce Guilty Pleas," Carrie Johnson, Dec. 5, 2013