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Human Rights Watch: feds coerce guilty pleas with redundant laws

A recent study by Human Rights Watch reveals evidence of coercive conduct by federal prosecutors during plea negotiations for federal drug offenses. As you may know, some 97 percent of all federal defendants agree to plead guilty; if they didn’t, our trial courts would be overwhelmed. Those guilty pleas should never be the result of unfair tactics by U.S. Attorneys and their staff -- and no one in our justice system is supposed to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

Yet redundancies in our federal drug laws give prosecutors virtually unchecked power to coerce defendants into guilty pleas, retaliate when they don’t play along, and determine their ultimate prison sentences, the report claims. Prosecutors have numerous laws covering the same behavior to choose from, and they have vastly different sentencing effects. As things stand, federal prosecutors hold the ultimate trump card -- and they’re using it.

The Human Rights Watch researcher combed through federal drug sentencing data and interviewed federal judges, prosecutors and public defenders. Disturbingly, she, uncovered dozens of cases in which first-time drug offenders were given sentences amounting to life in prison, often clearly the result of undue pressure or retaliation by prosecutors.

One was a 53-year-old woman arrested for a first offense of meth distribution, who declined an initial plea offer that would have put her behind bars for 17 years. The prosecutors filed additional charges under a law with statutory mandatory minimum sentence for each count -- and each sentence was “stacked” instead of running concurrently as is more usual. After a trial conviction, the judge was forced to send her away for more than 45 years -- essentially the rest of her life.

In other cases, people with a history of minor convictions such as for drug possession, found themselves facing stacked sentences, as well. Despite U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent call for federal prosecutors to refrain from charging individual drug users and small-time dealers with federal crimes, just those types of offenders are ending up with life- or near-life sentences.

The researcher concluded that federal judges lack the basic discretion needed to oppose outrageous sentences sought by prosecutors. The Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to consider the matter this week. If the researcher’s conclusions are accurate, unfortunately, that’s not nearly soon enough for the people charged with federal drug crimes who may be being railroaded into prison right now.

Source: NPR, "Report: Threat Of Mandatory Minimums Used To Coerce Guilty Pleas," Carrie Johnson, Dec. 5, 2013

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