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Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life? How Federal Drug Offenders Are Punished for Seeking Trials

Drug offenders who lose to Feds in Court get triple the time behind bars.

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Americans who fight federal drug charges in court but lose after a trial are likely to spend nearly three times as long in prison compared to those who accept a guilty plea deal, a new Human Rights Watch study of federal prosecutions and sentences has found.

“Prosecutors give drug defendants a so-called choice—in the most egregious cases, the choice can be to plead guilty to 10 years, or risk life without parole by going to trial,” said Jamie Fellner, author of the 126-page Human Rights Watch report. “Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse. This is coercion pure and simple.”

Fellner’s analysis is a grim and disturbing look at a system that is intent on branding and jailing people as criminals for years, rather than a system where justice, rehabilitation or proportional sentencing is valued. The average sentence for federal drug offenders who accepted a plea deal in 2012—which was 97 percent of 25,560 offenders—was five years and four months. The average sentence for those convicted after a trial was 16 years.

What accounts for that difference is a mix of prosecutors abusing their authority to pile on charges if the accused demands a trial, the introduction of other factors at sentencing hearings if the accused is convicted—such as prior convictions or the presence of guns related to the crime, and the inability of judges to override mandatory jail terms created by a congressional sentencing commission, Human Rights Watch explained.  

“There is nothing inherently wrong with resolving cases through guilty pleas—it reduces the many burdens of trial preparation,” the report said. “But in the U.S. plea bargaining system, many federal prosecutors strong-arm defendants by offering them shorter prison terms if they plead guilty, and threatening them if they go to trial with sentences that, in the words of Judge John Gleeson of the Southern District of New York, can be ‘so excessively severe, they take your breath away.’”

The report, “ An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty,” is filled with examples illustrating how prosecutors prey on drug charge defendants, some of whom have little or no relationship to gangs or drug dealers besides being a family member, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being a substance abuser or an addict with untreated mental illness.

Consider the report’s harrowing summary of the case of Darlene Eckles, a first-time offender who received 19 years, while her drug-dealing brother was sentenced to 12 years.

"Darlene Eckles was arrested on federal narcotics charges in 2006, one of 40 defendants allegedly involved in a drug trafficking business led by her brother, Rick. In late 2003, he needed a place to live after he got out of prison and Darlene permitted him to live with her. Against her wishes, he began operating his drug business out of her home and after a while, she collected and counted money for him. After six months, when her brother would not stop dealing from her house, she kicked him out. He went to live with another sister, and continued his business from her house.

"A nursing assistant with no criminal record and the mother of a young son, Darlene Eckles’ only involvement with drugs was during the limited time her brother lived with her. The government offered her a plea deal of 10 years for one drug conspiracy count, but she refused to plea, believing she was innocent of drug trafficking. After trial, the jury convicted Darlene of a lesser included drug offense that carried no mandatory minimum.