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.