Human Rights Watch report: Drug defendants are being ‘forced’ to plead guilty


Federal prosecutors routinely threaten extraordinarily severe prison sentences to coerce drug defendants into waiving their right to trial and pleading guilty, Human Rights Watch said in a report.

In the rare cases in which defendants insist on going to trial, prosecutors make good on their threats. Federal drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain, according to new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch.  

“Prosecutors can say, ‘Take these 10 years or, if you get a trial and are convicted, you’re going to look at life,’” said Fellner, an attorney who specializes in criminal justice issues at Human Rights Watch. “That’s a pretty amazing power that unfortunately they are more than willing to wield.”

The effect, she argues, is that prosecutors essentially “force” defendants to plead guilty.

Only 3 percent of U.S. drug defendants in federal cases chose to go to trial instead of pleading guilty in 2012, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

The small number begins to make sense if you consider the consequences faced by drug defendants convicted in court, argues the report’s author, Jamie Fellner.

Last year, drug defendants in federal cases who went to trial and lost were sentenced to more than three times as many years in prison as those who took a plea, according to the report’s analysis of data from the United States Sentencing Commission, a government agency.

And the majority of those who did go to trial — 89 percent of them — lost.

The percentage of defendants in 2012 who fought their charges is at an all-time low. In 1980, the first year for which the report reviewed the relevant data, the percentage of federal drug defendants who pleaded guilty was slightly more than 60 percent, and it has risen steadily since then.

How prosecutors force drug defendants to plead guilty:


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