US Forces Guilty Pleas on Drug Defendants: Group

Human Rights Watch puts spotlight on mandatory minimums
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 5, 2013 2:49 PM CST
Attorney General Eric Holder.   (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

(Newser) – Defendants in federal drug cases are getting unfairly sentenced, thanks to mandatory minimums and unchecked power wielded by the Justice Department, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Prosecutors basically "force" defendants into pleading guilty with threats of lengthy sentences and stacked-up charges if the case goes to trial, the study states. "Prosecutors can say, 'Take these 10 years or, if you get a trial and are convicted, you're going to look at life," study author Jamie Fellner tells the Huffington Post. "That's a pretty amazing power that unfortunately they are more than willing to wield."

Just 3% of cases went to trial last year, and of those, 89% of defendants lost. On average, they were given an extra 11 years in prison compared with those who took a plea deal, NPR reports. In one case, a 53-year-old woman with no prior convictions was given "effectively a life sentence" of 45 years for dealing meth and having guns in her house; she had refused a plea deal of 17 years. "When you have innocent people tempted and also maybe pleading guilty just to avoid the possibility of a really long sentence, that doesn't give you a whole lot of faith in the integrity of the system," Fellner says. As for Eric Holder's promised reform: Fellner says she's already found cases where prosecutors have failed to take his advice. (Read more Department of Justice stories.)

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