The trial penalty and what it often means for drug offenders

On Behalf of | Jun 12, 2015 | Drug Charges |

Drug crimes are among the most frequently and heavily prosecuted offenses. And when it comes to heavy-handed prosecution, the federal government is the undisputed leader. The vast majority of federal drug crime cases never make it to trial, because defendants usually opt for a plea deal. Is this because federal prosecutors always have the evidence they need to convict? The answer is no, but they do have broad powers that allow them to coerce guilty pleas even from some defendants who have not committed a crime.

Prosecutors at the state and federal level often threaten defendants with what’s commonly referred to as the “trial penalty.” In short, prosecutors offer a plea deal that may or may not be fair. And they warn defendants that if they reject the deal and go to trial, they will face incredibly harsh sentences if they are found guilty. Because of certain legal tools available to prosecutors, these retaliatory sentences can be two to three times longer than what a defendant might face if he chose to plead guilty.

One tool available to federal prosecutors is the 851 statute. It allows prosecutors to seek harsher sentences based on an offender’s prior convictions. Whether or not 851 is invoked is left up to prosecutors. And in many cases, it is invoked only because a drug-crime defendant chose to exercise his Constitutional right to a jury trial.

Mandatory minimum sentences and sentence multipliers have caused the prison population to explode. Even worse, however, is the fact that individuals can end up serving decades or even life in prison for non-violent drug offenses.

Is any of this fair or ethical? Most would say: absolutely not. But until or unless substantive criminal justice reforms are enacted, these tools will likely remain available to prosecutors and will be used freely.

If you are facing charges for drug crimes or any other offense, you should realize that the proverbial deck is stacked in favor of prosecutors. As such, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney fighting for your rights and your freedom.

Source: The New York Times, “Reining In Federal Prosecutors,” Mona Lynch, June 2, 2015


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