This week’s release of the Human Rights Watch Report, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” confirms that harsh sentencing laws have undermined the American jury system. On average, 97 percent of defendants plead guilty in federal court. For crimes that carry a minimum mandatory sentence, going to trial has simply become too risky. As Human Rights Watch reports: “Defendants convicted of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences who went to trial received sentences on average 11 years longer than those who pled guilty.”
This risk goes well beyond the traditional trade-offs. Plea offers have been around since the 1800s and are a well-established and necessary part of criminal practice. But the new mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements have given federal prosecutors new power to coerce pleas and avoid trials. A prosecutor can now give a minor drug dealer this choice: “Plead guilty to a reduced charge, or go to trial and risk sentencing that will put you in jail for decades.” It’s not hard to understand why so many defendants—whether innocent, guilty, or not quite as guilty as charged—are taking the first option.
Lawyers call this “the trial penalty,” and even Supreme Court justices like Anthony Kennedy have concluded that “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” The cost—in terms of money and lives—has been noted by leaders on both sides of the political aisle, and has drawn the attention of Attorney General Eric Holder, himself, who has begun the process of rethinking some of the charging guidelines for mandatory minimum sentences.