More Drug Offenders Being Forced to Plead Guilty

By Allison McCabe 12/09/13

Faced with receiving harsh penalties, defendants are feeling pressure from prosecutors to accept less time in exchange for a guilty plea. And overwhelmingly they agree.

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Most defendants won't step foot inside a courtroom.
Photo via Shutterstock

If you were given a choice between pleading guilty and spending ten years behind bars, or going to trial and potentially facing life in prison, which would you choose? That’s the hard choice drug defendants in the U.S. are increasingly facing, and overwhelmingly they are opting for a lesser sentence.

The choice makes sense if you look at the numbers. In 2012, 89% of defendants who chose to go to trial not only lost their case, but were also sentenced to an average sentence of sixteen years, three times higher than the five year sentence given to those who pled guilty. As a result of these disproportionate numbers, only three percent of federal drug defendants chose a trial in 2012, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

Federal prosecutors have the power to decide which charges to bring against drug defendants. They also decide what conditions to impose in order for a plea bargain to go through, and what consequences the defendant will face if he or she does not plea. Because of the mandatory minimum laws which were instituted in the 1980s, judges do not have a choice when it comes to sentencing drug defendants charged with a particular crime. In other words, if the defendant is guilty of a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge must impose that penalty no matter what. In essence, it's the prosecutors who are sentencing defendants. According to Jamie Fellner, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, “Prosecutors can say ‘Take these 10 years or, if you get a trial and are convicted, you’re going to look at life.’”

If the defendant knows that he will receive a harsh penalty if he is found guilty, he is much more likely to seriously consider a plea. According to Judge John Gleeson of the Southern District of New York, these sentences can be “so excessively severe, they take your breath away.” Not only do the prosecutors set the plea bargain, it's becoming essential to the system that defendants accept prison instead of going to trail. "If you can get someone to acknowledge guilt without the burden and expense of a trial, without having to marshal witnesses and line up witnesses, and without risking an acquittal, why not," Fellner said. "You don’t have the cost of a trial, it doesn’t take the time and resources, and it increases the notches on your belt of how many convictions you’ve gotten.”

Because our judicial system does not have the resources required to try every case, prosecutors have come to embrace the situation as a matter of course. “Justice would almost stand still if we took the majority of our cases to trial,” said Steven Jansen, the vice president and chief operating officer of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. He also notes that reforms on the mandatory minimum laws are underway. However, he objects to the characterization of prosecutors “forcing” their defendants to plead guilty: “a defendant is really not forced to accept a guilty plea. Obviously they have a right to go to trial no matter what the sentence is,” Jansen said.

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Allison McCabe is the editor in chief of The Fix. She has written for LA Weekly, Village Voice, Junk: a literary fix, Ramshackle Review, Main Street Journal and others. Follow Allison on Twitter.