Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he had directed federal prosecutors to adjust the ways in which they charged first-time, nonviolent offenders with drug crimes. The changes ordered by Holder were specifically designed to circumvent harsh mandatory minimum sentencing rules, under which some first-time offenders received long, multi-year sentences. Many experts saw this move as a prudent first step in moving beyond policies set during the height of the federal government's war on drugs.
Recently, a report has arisen indicating that federal prosecutors are still using the threat of harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving drug trafficking and related crimes. Specifically, prosecutors appear to be using their discretion to bring charges that would carry mandatory minimum sentences as a means of coercing confessions from defendants who refuse to plead guilty.
The report, written by the group Human Rights Watch, should come as no surprise. After all, prosecutors are likely to use whatever tools that are available to them to ensure a guilty plea or conviction. Nevertheless, the report is disheartening, particularly for those who applauded the Attorney General's initial decision to be more lenient in the charging of low level drug offenders.
For its part, the Justice Department has reiterated its dedication to avoid filing sentencing enhancements against certain first-time, low level suspects. A statement by the Justice Department also said that it does not support the use of these sentencing enhancements as a means of securing a criminal confession.
Critics of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws have renewed calls to provide federal judges with greater leeway to deviate from sentencing guidelines. In many cases, judges develop a sense of what a proper sentence should be simply from getting to know the facts of the case. Some suggest that the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to consider their options once Congress returns from recess.
Some have also suggested that Attorney General Holder should provide further guidance to federal prosecutors regarding the use of mandatory minimum sentences as a tool for securing a confession. So far, the Attorney General has not spoken publicly about the matter.
If you are facing investigation for drug trafficking or any other federal crime, it is imperative that you speak to an experienced criminal defense lawyer. A criminal defense lawyer can advise you about your options and can help you protect your rights. For more information, speak to a criminal defense attorney today.