Sentencing/Post Conviction

What's the sentencing penalty for going to trial? Study shows why most drug defendants plead guilty

Federal drug cases rarely go to trial. Instead, defendants plead guilty in 97 percent of the cases.

A study by Human Rights Watch shows why drug defendants are reluctant to gamble on a trial, the New York Times reports. Last year, federal drug defendants convicted at trial received sentences of 16 years on average, about triple the sentence imposed on those who pleaded guilty.

To account for differences in offenses, Human Rights Watch created a sample of drug cases without weapons that were similar based on drug quantity and the defendant’s criminal history. Defendants who went to trial received average sentences of nine years, 10 months, compared to an average of four years, 11 months for those who pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors induce guilty pleas by threatening to charge defendants with offenses carrying harsh mandatory penalties and by seeking additional mandatory sentencing enhancements, according to a press release summarizing the study. Prosecutors may obtain longer sentences by notifying the court of prior offenses, for example, or by seeking consecutive sentences for weapons related to a drug offense.

The study author is Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser to Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse,” Fellner said in the press release. “This is coercion pure and simple.”

The Times spoke with Georgetown law professor William Otis, who offered another perspective. Defendants may have little bargaining power, he said, because there is solid evidence against them. He added that the decline in violent crime over the last 20 years shows the system is working.

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