Federal Prosecutors Under Fire For Harsh Sentences, Bullying Defendants
According to a new New York Times report, not only are mandatory minimums responsible for obscenely long prison sentences for low level drug offenders, a Human Rights Watch study has found the federal prosecutors try to bully defendants into pleading guilty and impose a “trial penalty” (extra prison time) if the defendant decides to go to trial.
According to US District Court Judge John Gleeson, “Prosecutors routinely threaten ultraharsh, enhanced mandatory sentences that no one — not even the prosecutors themselves — thinks are appropriate.” Gleeson says prosecutors use this to “coerce guilty pleas and produces sentences so excessively severe they take your breath away.”
According to the Human Rights Watch study, prosecutors used prior conviction multipliers to add prison time to 24 percent of defendants who pleaded guilty but 72 percent of those who went to trial.
Human Rights Watch Senior Adviser Jamie Fellner says “The punishment is supposed to be proportionate with the crime. If a prosecutor thought 10 years was sufficient, how come if you go to trial, now you’re looking at life?”
Because this has become systematic, federal drug trials are almost nonexistent as 97 percent of defendants accept guilty pleas. Because mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes can be five to ten years, and more for people who have been previously convicted, many lawyers advise their clients to accept guilty pleas even if there is a decent chance of acquittal.
Public defender Michael Nachmanoff says “I tell people, ‘If you think 10 years is too long to serve and the other option is to get 20, I want you to think, how would you feel nine years from now?’ Those aren’t the options people should have.”
There are currently a number of proposals in the Senate to make sentencing less strict for low level drug offenders. A bi-partisan bill co-sponsored by Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy and Kentucky Republic Rand Paul would give judges the ability to waive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines entirely. Another bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee, would lower the length of prison time mandatory minimum laws require.
(Image courtesy of US Embassy New Zealand)