Harsh sentencing guidelines give extra power to prosecutors (part 1 of 2)

In some situations, a criminal suspect may choose to accept a plea agreement because they feel there is a significant possibility that they could be convicted of the charges against them. By accepting slightly reduced charges, they may lighten their sentence while the prosecutor avoids the risk of losing the case at trial.

Increasingly though, prosecutors penalize those who refuse to accept a plea agreement by including charges that have long mandatory sentences. This ‘scare tactic’ on the part of prosecutors can be compounded by judges with full dockets who may resent having to actually try a criminal case in federal court.

According to an article in the New York Times, in federal criminal cases prior to 1980 the ratio of guilty pleas to criminal trial verdicts was four to one, now that ratio is 32 to one. This astounding rise in the number of guilty pleas reflects the harsh nature of federal mandatory sentencing laws. Unfortunately, many legislators want to seem ‘tough on crime’ and one of the easiest ways to do this is to pass a new mandatory sentencing law. These laws are often aimed at political benefits rather than protecting the constitutional rights of suspects.

In our second part of this post later this week, we will take a look at how the sentencing guidelines have changed the roles of judges and prosecutors. While judges have traditionally had the most discretion in the justice system, the guidelines have removed much of that authority and have given prosecutors more power in shaping the outcome.

Source: New York Times, “Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors,” Richard Oppel Jr., Sept. 25, 2011