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Study: Federal sentencing causes shocking penalties, coerced pleas

Around 97 percent of all federal criminal defendants end up pleading guilty, typically through plea bargains with prosecutors. According to a recent study, those who agree to plead guilty end up serving less an average of 11 fewer years in prison than those who go to trial. Negotiated sentences should be lower, or defendants wouldn’t bother accepting them. That would grind our courts to a halt.

Yet when it comes to federal drug crimes, the mandatory-minimum sentences are shockingly high, so plea offers aren’t tempting. Unfortunately, researchers from Human Rights Watch found federal prosecutors more than willing to threaten additional charges and stacked sentences to coerce defendants into pleading guilty -- and to carry out those threats against those who refuse.

The report’s findings are appalling and, unfortunately, they’re based on serious research, including detailed statistics and legal information. The researchers pored over the Federal Sentencing Commission files of at least 24,765 drug offenders, and performed interviews with federal judges, U.S. Attorneys, federal public defenders, academics and others.

Around half of all those incarcerated in our already-overcrowded federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Forty-eight percent of those are street-level dealers or couriers, 50 to 75 percent of whom are subject to mandatory minimums.

Legal and sentencing experts interviewed for the study say the mandatory-minimum sentences Congress passed in the 1980s were meant to put drug kingpins behind bars for at least 10 years; mid-level traffickers for 5. New laws, evolving legal decisions and overlapping charges, however, are now putting minor-league drug dealers behind bars for decades and even life.

In dozens of cases, researchers found first-time offenders charged with relatively minor crimes who were sent away for nearly 50 years after prosecutors filed multiple charges covering the same incident, and stacked the sentences consecutively. Minor players with prior convictions, including one whom a federal judge said had never possessed more drugs than “would rattle around in a matchbox,” have been sent to prison for life.

Prosecutors are apparently using every possible tactic to put even the least-culpable of federal drug defendants behind bars for as long as conceivably possible. That strategy is simply unsustainable, and it's appalling public policy.

Yet, “as long as there are mandatory minimums,” the study’s lead author says, “prosecutors dictate the sentences by the charges they bring."


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