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Drug crimes: Mandatory sentences may lead to unfair outcomes

Defendants should always take drug charges seriously, no matter the nature of the allegations being made. However, if the charges are being handled as a federal criminal matter, the stakes may be even higher. Not only do federal law enforcement officials and prosecutors have significant resources at their disposal, but the potential consequences for conviction are often more serious that those issued for state-level charges.

A recent report from the New York Times illustrates the tremendous hurdles that defendants often deal with when they are charged with federal drug crimes. The reality is that mandatory sentencing guidelines and additional penalties added by judges can lead to incredibly long sentences, particularly if defendants exercise their right to go to a trial by jury and offer a defense against the charges.

Statistics from Human Rights Watch show that people plead guilty an overwhelming 97 percent of the time when they are subject to federal drug charges. This is the result of what the organization calls the "trial penalty."

When offered the choice between a plea bargain and going to trial, defendants nearly always opt for the former. The organization says that those who decide to take a case to trial, on average, receive a much stronger sentence, which essentially leaves forces defendants into pleading guilty.

This problem is evident in the case of a man who faced federal trafficking charges. By accepting a deal, prosecutors would've suggested a 10-year prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. The man opted to take his case to trial. In the end, he was given a life sentence without parole, which was the mandatory sentence as the result of previous convictions.

Observers note that sentences have become distorted and unfair as the result of mandatory minimums, three-strike laws and judicial discretion. One critical principle of the criminal justice system is fairness. Criminal sentences should be proportional to the allegations included in a charge.

Source: The New York Times, "Prosecutors Draw Fire for Sentences Called Harsh," Erik Eckholm, Dec. 5, 2013

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