Report Finds High Rate of Plea Deals in Federal Drug Cases

Report Finds High Rate of Plea Deals in Federal Drug Cases

Report Finds High Rate of Plea Deals in Federal Drug Cases

A report published this month by Human Rights Watch found a startlingly high rate of plea agreements among defendants charged with federal drug crimes – 97 percent nationwide. The report alleges that the system of charging federal drug defendants creates a situation in which there is a penalty for pursuing one’s right to go to trial on the merits of the case, instead leaving defendants with little choice but to plead guilty and accept a plea agreement.

The problems with the plea agreement system are closely related to the presence of mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug charges. A mandatory minimum sentence means that if a defendant is conviction of a certain crime, the judge has to sentence them to a minimum number of years, regardless of any mitigating or special circumstances that would cause a judge to hand down a modified sentence in a state drug case.

Mandatory minimum sentences are the main thing that prosecutors use as a bargaining chip when offering a plea agreement to a defendant. The trouble comes when prosecutors threaten to add additional charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences to someone’s case if they do not accept a plea agreement. This means that a person who was arrested and initially accused of just one crime that carried a modest sentence could wind up facing two or three additional charges and a stacked sentence of 10 or 20 years if a jury finds them guilty. Rather than take that gamble, 97 percent of drug defendants accept a plea agreement for a lesser number of years, not subject to mandatory minimums.

Source: MSNBC, “Is there a ‘trial penalty’ for drug defendants who refuse plea deals?” Meredith Clark, Dec. 15, 2013.

Report Finds High Rate of Plea Deals in Federal Drug Cases
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