Very few federal drug defendants are willing to go to trial, as those convicted after trial receive sentences that are three times longer on average than those who take a plea deal.
A report from Human Rights Watch indicates that federal prosecutors routinely threaten extraordinarily severe prison sentences to coerce drug defendants into waiving their right to trial and pleading guilty.
The report, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty,” details how prosecutors throughout the U.S. extract guilty pleas from federal drug defendants by charging or threatening to charge them with offenses carrying harsh mandatory sentences and by seeking additional mandatory increases to those sentences. Defendants are reportedly offered by a much lower sentence by prosecutors in exchange for pleading guilty.
It’s also noted that since drug defendants rarely prevail at trial, and it’s not a surprise that 97 percent of them decide to plead guilty.
Forbes also notes the leverage that prosecutors have in negotiating plea deals.
Under Title 21, Section 841(b)(1), for example, prosecutors have complete discretion in deciding whether to mention prior felony convictions in connection with a drug offender’s sentencing, which can have a jaw-dropping impact on the penalty received:
If a prosecutor decides to notify the court of one prior conviction, the defendant’s sentence will be doubled. If the prosecutor decides to notify the court of two prior convictions for a defendant facing a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence on the current offense, the sentence increases to life.
Human Rights Watch also notes as an example that in one of the many cases it reviewed, Sandra Avery, a small-time drug dealer, rejected a plea of 10 years for possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine with intent to deliver. The prosecutor triggered a sentencing enhancement based on her prior convictions for simple drug possession, and she was sentenced to life without parole.