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Prosecutors Threaten Mandatory Minimums to Extract Guilty Pleas, According to New Report

Brian J Smith Jan. 28, 2014

According to a recent study from Human Rights Watch, defendants in federal drug cases who don’t plead guilty oftentimes pay dearly. The study found that defendants who chose to go to trial received average sentences 11 times longer than those that took the guilty plea. In 2012, the average sentence for a defendant who took a plea bargain was 5 years and 4 months, while the average prison sentence for a case that went to trial was 16 years. With that statistic in mind, it comes as no surprise that 97 percent of drug crimes defendants plead guilty.

Prosecutors have enormous power to seek longer mandatory sentences for people who do not accept plea bargains thanks to mandatory minimums. Prosecutors can tack on extra years in prison by taking into account previous convictions, even if those charges were small. This disproportionate sentencing system can sometimes mean life sentences for even first time offenders.

One such example is Mary Beth Looney, who faced charges for dealing methamphetamine and possession of firearms. She was offered a deal of 17 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea, which she refused. After she refused, prosecutors stacked on additional charges, and she was sentenced to more than 45 years in jail. A federal appeals even expressed that the trial judge had little choice but impose what was “effectively a life sentence” thanks to mandatory minimum sentences against the Texas woman, who had no prior convictions.

What is perhaps most troubling is how the system seems to be skewed in favor of prosecutors. Why is it that a sentence less than the mandatory minimum seems to be acceptable for a plea deal, yet unacceptable at trial? In addition, defendants who have a history of minor drug possession charges against them run the risk of the Justice Department stacking those sentences onto and new offenses. Going back to our earlier statistic that 97 percent of defendants plead guilty simply to avoid the harsh penalties of going to trial, it’s easy to see how defendants find themselves trapped in the criminal justice system.

For more information on defense against drug crimes in the Las Vegas area, contact attorney Brian J. Smith at (702) 380-8248 today.

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