Critics say prosecutor’s are using their discretionary power to coerce defendants into pleading guilty and over-punish those who don’t. This criticism started when federal prosecutors in Baltimore gave a defendant accused of heroin trafficking two options: 1) either plead guilty and they would recommend a 10-year prison sentence, or 2) request trial and prosecutors would bring his two prior convictions into play, which would result in a sentence of life without parole if convicted.
Mandatory minimum sentences have already been a serious source of controversy, particularly within the past year. This is in part due to federal prison overcrowding, but many others are advocating that these types of sentences are inherently unfair and disproportionate to the crime. In support of this view, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the end to mandatory minimum sentences specifically for low-level drug offenders. What the federal prosecutor did in this Baltimore case goes beyond our mandatory minimum laws and has been attacked as an abuse of the justice system.
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Some researchers have coined the term “trial penalty” to describe this phenomenon. Defendants are literally being punished for requesting trial rather than pleading guilty. Request trial and lose? You could face an automatic sentence of life without parole, like the heroin trafficking defendant.
Reports of federal drug convictions from last year alone indicate that the average sentence for a defendant who loses at trial is 16 years in prison. The average time federal drug defendants faced in prison after accepting plea bargains? 5 years and 4 months. This indicates that federal defendants who go to trial and lose are facing prison sentences more than twice the length of those who accept plea bargains. Data also revealed that federal prosecutor’s are much more likely to invoke prior offenses when a defendant pleads not guilty (74% to 24% of federal drug cases in 2012).
A spokesperson from the Human Rights Watch organization said it well, “If a prosecutor thought 10 years was sufficient, how come if you go to trial, now you’re looking at life?”
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It is not illegal to use plea bargains. In fact, this can be a favorable way to speed up the legal process and eliminate excessive legal resources in the cases of clearly guilty defendants. However, federal prosecutor’s are accused of abusing this right by essentially bullying defendants into pleading guilty. An overwhelming majority of defendants facing federal drug charges plead guilty and do not request trial- 97 percent to be exact.
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Spokespeople for the Justice Department have said that enhancements should not by any means be used to manipulate or virtually force a defendant to accept a plea deal. However, the odds still are certainly not in the defendant’s favor, which has prompted many defense attorneys to encourage their clients to plead guilty, even if they believe that there’s a strong chance they could go to trial and receive an acquittal.
While those who commit crimes absolutely deserve to be punished, their punishments should always without fail be proportionate to the offense. More and more defendants are losing their chances to turn their lives around because of the trial penalty. Legislative changes to crack down on “harsh” and “excessive” sentences remains to be seen.