For the very first time, the study, compiled by Humans Rights Watch, found that defendants who decide to go on trial before the judge or jury usually get a prison sentence 11 years longer on average than those who decide to plead guilty.
The report found that 97% of defendants decide to plead guilty, which increases the power that federal prosecutors have over the US justice system.
This issue is important because about 50% of people who are in US prisons are there due to drug offenses. Even though many of them are petty drug criminals, they still get long prison sentences on federal drug charges because of 5-10 year mandatory minimum sentences in the US. These sentences were passed by Congress during the crack cocaine outbreak in the 1980s. Prosecutors are given the option of putting more charges onto the defendant depending upon his or her earlier offenses, such as lower level drug possession.
The report author’s interview with judges, prosecutors and public defenders, as well as her extensive review of sentencing data, showed there were dozens of cases where those charged were sent to prison for nearly 50 years for a first time drug offense.
In one of these cases, a woman refused the plea deal that would have put her in prison for 17 years for federal drug charges as well as gun charges. Prosecutors piled more charges on her and after she was convicted, she got 45 years in prison. Federal appeals courts have noted that mandatory minimum sentences leave the judge with very little discretion and often end up imposing a near life sentence on a person who has no prior convictions.
For other defendants who have a history of petty drug offenses, the DOJ is able to stack up these prior offenses with more time behind bars. One judge wrote in the report that he did not like the life sentence that several prosecutors attempted to impose on a defendant. The offender carried so little drugs that it easily fit inside a match box, and the box wasn’t even full. But the report stated that often judges have their hands tied and have to impose a stiff sentence.
The report stated that having a judge and jury relegated to mere figureheads is not healthy for the legal system. It does not cause people to trust the results of legal trials. If you have innocent people sometimes pleading guilty to just avoid a very long sentence, it does not provide the most confidence in our legal system.