Study: No Check on Feds' Sentencing Power With Mandatory Minimums

In the federal criminal justice system some 97 percent of all defendants plead guilty -- but are they, really? A recent study by Human Rights Watch certainly casts some doubt in federal drug cases.

While many defendants undoubtedly were involved in some drug activity, it's not clear at all that they're guilty of what federal prosecutors charged them with. This study, an exhaustive review of federal drug sentencing data and interviews with federal judges, prosecutors and public defenders concluded that U.S. Attorneys routinely use mandatory sentencing provisions and sentence stacking to coerce defendants into accepting plea deals.

Even more alarming, the research identified dozens of cases in which first-time offenders were sentenced to 50 years in prison or longer, based solely on what charges individual federal prosecutors chose to bring. The penalties for some federal drug crimes are covered by the federal sentencing guidelines -- but others are subject statutory mandatory minimum sentences that tie judges' hands.

"As long as there are mandatory minimums, prosecutors dictate the sentences by the charges they bring," the study's author told NPR.

Statutory mandatory-minimum sentences and stacking provisions leave judges with little ability to reduce even those sentences they feel are manifestly unjust. Knowing that, prosecutors have leverage to add additional charges and stack sentences to get their way.

That appears to have been the case for one woman who was charged with first-offense methamphetamine distribution. According to Human Rights Watch, the woman refused prosecutors' original offer of 17 years in prison. They retaliated by adding more charges, so after being convicted at trial the 53-year-old woman was sentenced to more than 45 years behind bars. The judge was powerless to reduce what was effectively a life sentence for a first-time drug offense.

The full impact of this research would take more than a blog post to fully discuss, so you should click on the source link below to read the interview on NPR. The piece includes a link to the full study.

Calls by everyone from fair sentencing groups to federal judges and even Attorney General Eric Holder have been calling for an end to our nation's draconian federal drug sentencing laws. This study's author warns that mandatory minimums, plea coercion and sentence stacking fundamentally threaten our criminal justice system.

"To have a judge and a jury relegated to essentially museum pieces," she said, "...doesn't lead to trust in the results."

Source: NPR, "Report: Threat Of Mandatory Minimums Used To Coerce Guilty Pleas," Carrie Johnson, Dec. 5, 2013

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