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U.S. Drug Offenders Pressured to Plead Guilty, HRW Says

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 6 2013 (IPS) - According to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), U.S. federal prosecutors more often than not threaten drug offenders with extraordinarily severe prison sentences as a means of coercion into waiving their right to trial and pleading guilty.

HRW’s research shows that the average sentence for federal drug offenders who pled guilty was five years, four months. For those convicted after trial, their average sentence was sixteen years. Drug defendants convicted of offences carrying mandatory minimum sentences, and who pled guilty during trial, were given an average sentence of 82.5 months compared with 215 months for those convicted after trial, a difference of 11 years.

Among drug defendants with prior felony convictions, the odds of receiving a sentencing enhancement based on those convictions was 8.4 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.   For defendants with a gun involved in their offence, their sentences were 2.5 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.

Jamie Fellner, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch, said, “Going to trial is a right, not a crime, but defendants are punished with longer sentences for exercising that right.” The report cites the case of first-time offender Mary Beth Looney, who refused a plea of 17 years for dealing methamphetamines and possessing guns in her home. The prosecutor then filed a repudiating indictment to increase her charges. After being convicted at trial, Looney was sentenced to 45.5 years in prison.

Congress had enacted mandatory minimum sentencing statutes during the 1980s, and lawmakers predetermined minimum sentences of 10-years for drug lords, and five years for mid-level traffickers. In August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging certain low-level nonviolent offenders who have carried out offences carrying mandatory minimum sentences.

Prosecutors were also commissioned to avoid seeking mandatory sentencing enhancements based on whether they had any prior convictions and if so, then at what level. Another case involved a defendant named Roy Lee Clay who had initially faced a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin. When he refused to plead guilty, the government sought a mandatory sentencing enhancement based on prior convictions. Clay was convicted after trial and sentenced to life in prison.  John Gleeson, a federal judge in New York’s Eastern District, commented “[This is] so excessively severe. [It] takes your breath away.”

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