When you are accused of a crime, you should have the right to plead either innocent or guilty. This is a choice that should be made in consultation with a criminal defense lawyer in Birmingham after considering the evidence against you, the available defenses and the risks that you face by going to trial. Unfortunately, a new report indicates that federal prosecutors have routinely been stacking the deck and convincing defendants to plead guilty by threatening draconian sentences for those who don’t enter into a plea bargain.
Such measures are directly contrary to the right of all accused criminals to a trial by a jury of their peers. You should not be coerced into admitting guilt for an offense you may or may not have committed because prosecutors threaten a lengthy jail sentence if you don’t waive your right to a trial. Nor should you be charged up, which often happens even though prosecutors know many of the charges won’t stick. Behavior like this is one reason why it is so essential for everyone accused of a criminal act to be represented by an experienced professional.
How Federal Prosecutors May Be Coercing Guilty Pleas
Human Rights Watch published information about the troubling trend of federal prosecutors coercing plea deals, which was revealed in a 126 page report called “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How U.S. Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendant to Plead Guilty.”
The organization reviewed hundreds of cases of drug defendants and interviewed numerous federal prosecutors, attorneys and judges. Statistics developed by Human Rights Watch were also developed to provide a detailed measure of the so-called trial penalty, which is the term used to describe the disproportionately long sentences for defendants convicted after trial as compared with those defendants who pled guilty.
Prosecutors are able to get away with this behavior because the hands of judges are virtually tied by minimum sentencing laws. Minimum sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980’s and included 10-year minimum sentences for drug kingpins and five-year sentences for mid-level drug traffickers. However, the laws did not specify the specific role that the offender must play in order to be charged with the crimes that triggered these sentences. Instead, the laws dealt with the type of the drug and the weight/ amount of the drug in the defendant’s possession.
This makes it possible for prosecutors to impose the same charges against couriers who deliver packages with drugs as would be brought against the head of the drug organization that ordered the delivery. As many as 48 percent of all federal drug defendants are couriers or street dealers, and thus frequently fall into this trap. This includes offenders in cities such as South Side, Titusville, Red Mountain, Woodlawn, and Ensley.
Prosecutors use the mandatory minimum sentencing laws to their advantage by offering a lower sentence in exchange for pleading guilty and charging those who go to trial with the more serious crimes. Although 97 percent of defendants decide to plead guilty to avoid the risks of these lengthy jail sentences, those who do go to trial take a tremendous risk that they’ll run up against a mandatory minimum sentence. The result of this has been that the average sentence for a federal drug offender who pled guilty was five years and four months while the average sentence for someone convicted and sentenced after trial was 16 years.
The discrepancy is huge, and it is extremely important for anyone who has been accused of a drug crime to understand what is at stake when making decisions about how to move forward with a case. Consulting with an attorney is key to making informed choices to protect your future.