Human Rights Watch Exposes Injustice of Plea Bargains and Mandatory Minimums

Federal prosecutors offered Roy Lee Clay, a 47-year-old part-time house remodeler from Baltimore a choice: plead guilty to conspiring to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin and face 10 years in federal prison, or go to trial. If Clay were to choose the latter option prosecutors emphasized he would risk spending the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.

Despite this threat, Clay rejected the plea offer and went to trial, which ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors renewed their 10-year plea offer, but Clay again refused. At his second trial, Clay was convicted and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. This sentence was handed down because the prosecutors sought a penalty enhancement for his prior drug convictions, which they otherwise would have ignored had he had accepted their plea offer. At his sentencing, even Judge Catherine Blake called his sentence “extremely severe and harsh,” but added that she had no choice but to issue it.

Mr. Clay’s case is one of many highlighted in a new report by Human Rights Watch, which explains how prosecutors use mandatory minimum sentencing laws to coerce drug defendants into accepting guilty pleas in return for a potentially shorter sentence. This report is the first to quantify what some call the “trial penalty,” or the additional prison time federal drug defendants face if they are convicted after exercising their right to trial.

The report highlights several sobering points. In the 2012 fiscal year, 97 percent of all federal drug convictions were secured by guilty pleas, and offenders convicted at trial were sentenced to an average of 16 years in prison—triple the average of the five years and four months offenders received after accepting a plea deal. For those defendants who do take their chances at trial, nine out of ten are convicted.

Some additional statistics included in the report include:

  • 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 (215 months versus 82.5 months).
  • Among first-time drug defendants facing mandatory minimum sentences who had the same offense level and no weapon involved in their offense, those who went to trial had almost twice the sentence length of those who pled guilty (117.6 months versus 59.5 months).
  • Among defendants who were eligible for a sentencing enhancement because of prior convictions, those who went to trial were 8.4 times more likely to have the enhancement applied than those who plead guilty.

Whether a defendant pleads guilty or goes to trial, the facts should theoretically remain the same. Unfortunately, due to the nature of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and overzealous prosecutors, that has never been the case.

However, calls to revise mandatory minimum sentencing laws have surged in the past year, and proposals in Congress to restrict their impact have won bipartisan support. On August 12, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors, instructing them to avoid charging offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent offenders. Holder also instructed prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory drug sentencing enhancements based on prior convictions when such severe punishment is not warranted.

Unfortunately, Holder’s memorandum is unenforceable in any tangible sense. Prosecutors won’t be held accountable if they choose to pursue harsh sentences against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who refuse to accept a plea bargain, and judges must continue to impose applicable mandatory minimum sentences or sentencing enhancements sought by prosecutors for convictions. As such, at least some prosecutors are carrying on business as usual for now. In Clay’s case, for example, he was sentenced to life in prison two weeks after Holder issued the memorandum.

Clearly, as long as these mandatory minimum sentencing laws are on the books, federal prosecutors (and prosecutors in states that have their own mandatory minimums) will continue to use the threat of long terms of imprisonment as leverage to obtain guilty pleas from low-level drug offenders, as they have for years.