Human Rights Watch (HRW) has a
disturbing reportalleging the U.S. government essentially forces drug defendants to either plead guilty or rot in prison for an insane amount of time.
In the report, called “An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” HRW looks into the unsettling reasons why a whopping 97% of federal drug defendants plead guilty and never go to trial.
Here’s how prosecutors generally get those guilty pleas, according to the report. Prosecutors often charge drug defendants with crimes that carry high mandatory minimum sentences — meaning judges will have to mete out harsh sentences if they’re found guilty.
(Attorney General Eric Holder recently ordered prosecutors to stop charging defendants in a way that triggers mandatory minimums, but his directive doesn’t apply to all drug defendants. Holder’s policy may also go away with a new administration.)
Once prosecutors hit people with these charges, they offer them one surefire way to avoid harsh sentences — a plea agreement. Drug defendants often agree to plead guilty — and often testify against others — in exchange for a significantly reduced sentence.
In some cases, prosecutors actually threaten to file additional charges against a defendant if they refuse to plead guilty. One anonymous former federal prosecutor told HRW that they “penalise a defendant for the audacity of going to trial.”
Given that nine out of 10 defendants who go to trial are found guilty, according to HRW, the “choice” is clear. From the report:
There is nothing inherently wrong with resolving cases through guilty pleas — it reduces the many burdens of trial preparation and the trial itself on prosecutors, defendants, judges, and witnesses. But in the US plea bargaining system, many federal prosecutors strong-arm defendants by offering them shorter prison terms if they plead guilty, and threatening them if they go to trial with sentences that, in the words of Judge John Gleeson of the Southern District of New York, can be “so excessively severe, they take your breath away.”
HRW profiled some folks who took their chances with a trial, and the results weren’t pretty.
One of those defendants, Darlene Eckles, never touched drugs but let her drug-dealing brother crash at her house for six months and counted his money. She refused a deal for a 10-year prison sentence. Eckles, a nursing assistant with a young son, went to trial and got 20 years. Her brother, who led the conspiracy, pleaded guilty and testified against his sister. He got 11 years and eight months.
It’s not unheard of for the leaders of drug rings to take advantage of plea deals and get less time than their underlings — in part because they have information they can trade in exchange for a deal. We’ve previously written about Mandy Martinson, an Iowa woman with a clean record who got a 15-year prison sentence for allegedly helping her boyfriend become a more “organised” drug dealer. That boyfriend got 12 years in prison.
As former U.S. attorney Scott Lassar said, according to HRW, “It’s a bounty system. [The defendant] gets credit for bringing in other people’s heads. If they don’t need you, you’re out of luck. If ringleader cooperates, he may get a better deal than people of lower culpability.”
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