A new report says the Justice Department regularly coerces defendants in federal drug cases to plead guilty by threatening them with steep prison sentences or stacking charges to increase their time behind bars.
And for the first time, the study by Human Rights Watch finds that defendants who take their fate to a judge or jury face prison sentences on average 11 years longer than those who plead guilty.
In all, a whopping 97 percent of defendants plead guilty — no surprise, says author Jamie Fellner, given the enormous and essentially unchecked power that federal prosecutors wield.
"As long as there are mandatory minimums, prosecutors dictate the sentences by the charges they bring," Fellner told NPR in an interview.
The issue matters because about half of the people in costly and overcrowded U.S. prisons got there after being charged with and convicted of drug offenses. Even though many of those inmates worked on the ground floor of drug operations, they still serve long prison sentences because of 5- and 10-year mandatory terms that Congress breathed into life during the heart of the crack cocaine scare in the 1980s. Prosecutors have the option of adding more charges based on a person's prior offenses, including low-level drug possession cases.
Fellner's interviews with prosecutors, judges and public defenders and her review of sentencing data uncovered dozens of cases where defendants got sent to prison for nearly a half century for first-time drug offenses.
In one such case, the Human Rights Watch report said, Mary Beth Looney of refused a plea deal that would have sent her to prison for 17 years for dealing methamphetamines and having guns in her house. Prosecutors added more charges against her. Ultimately, after trial and conviction, she was sentenced to more than 45 years behind bars. As a federal appeals court noted, mandatory minimum sentences left the trial judge with little discretion but to impose "effectively a life sentence" on the 53-year-old Texas woman who had no prior convictions.
For others with a history of small-time drug possession raps, the ability of the Justice Department to stack on those old histories adds up, too. One judge wrote that he was dismayed by the life sentence that prosecutors tried to impose on a defendant for carrying such a small amount of drugs over the course of his criminal history that the substance "would rattle around in a matchbox." But too often, Fellner wrote, judges find their hands are tied by the mandatory sentencing system.
"To have a judge and a jury relegated to essentially museum pieces, it's not healthy," Fellner said. "It doesn't lead to trust in the results. When you have innocent people tempted and also maybe pleading guilty just to avoid the possibility of a really long sentence, that doesn't give you a whole lot of faith in the integrity of the system."
The Justice Department had no immediate comment on the Human Rights Watch study.
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder told federal prosecutors not to hit low-level drug offenders with charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences, part of an effort to reduce U.S. incarceration levels and to reorient the criminal justice system toward violent criminals and to become more "smart" on crime. Human Rights Watch says it's too early to say how prosecutors around the country will interpret that broad guidance. There's no apparent remedy if prosecutors refuse to follow the directive. And Fellner said she already has found some cases where the Justice Department appeared to do just that.
Fellner said Congress needs to restore discretion to federal judges, by getting rid of mandatory minimums or giving judges more power to depart from sentencing guidelines based on the facts in an individual case. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will consider some of these options when the Senate returns from recess next week. Fellner said Holder, in the meantime, should bar prosecutors from threatening longer sentences because defendants in drug cases refuse to plead guilty.
On today's show: the story of an often-overlooked innovation that's essential to the global economy. The innovation is a box. A big, metal box.
The standard shipping container has completely transformed commerce in the past 50 years. It's part of the reason the Planet Money men's T-shirt comes from cotton grown in Mississippi, spun into yarn in Indonesia, and sewn together in Bangladesh.
On today's show, we see the shipping container in action, and hear the story behind it.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been fined $100,000 for interfering with a kickoff return in a Thanksgiving Day game with the Baltimore Ravens.
"The league said Tomlin's actions — he was standing on the white stripe that borders the playing field and took a step onto the field during Jacoby Jones' kickoff return — should have resulted in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty."
In a statement, Tomlin said: "As I stated yesterday, I take full responsibility for my actions, and I apologize for causing negative attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.
"I accept the penalty that I received. I will no longer address this issue as I am preparing for an important game this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins," he said.
The fine imposed on Tomlin is the second-largest for an NFL coach, ESPN says.
MSNBC host Martin Bashir has resigned from the network following controversial remarks he made about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Some three weeks ago, Bashir referred to Palin as a "world-class idiot" for suggesting that U.S. indebtedness to China was akin to slavery. The television host quoted from plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood's diary describing a punishment for slaves that involved having others defecate in their mouths.
"When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery, she doesn't just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, she would be the outstanding candidate," he said in a Nov. 15 broadcast.
The remarks caused a firestorm of controversy, and on Wednesday, Bashir said he'd tendered his resignation over the matter.
"It is my sincere hope that all of my colleagues, at this special network, will be allowed to focus on the issues that matter without the distraction of myself or my ill-judged comments," he wrote in a statement. "I deeply regret what was said, will endeavor to work hard at making constructive contributions in the future and will always have a deep appreciation for our viewers."
The Associated Press writes that Bashir's departure has "coincided with MSNBC's firing of Alec Baldwin from his weekly talk show after two weeks for using an anti-gay slur in a New York City street encounter."
Black Friday. Check. Cyber Monday. Check. Now we're officially cowl-neck deep in the season for combing through catalogs, store websites, shelf-after-shelf of half-organized apparel and umpteen gift guides (usually claiming to be the ultimate), to find that one item that will be someone's favorite this year.
Let NPR save you from this all this holiday shopping hullabaloo. Over the next couple weeks, we'll be posting some of our favorite NPR Shop products to the @NPR Twitter account and This is NPR Facebook page.
While we won't try to claim this as a one-stop-shop for everyone on your list, we can promise that these gift ideas aren't just for the hard-core public radio junkie in your life. (You know, the friend who has a few well-used public radio mugs in the cupboard.) What you can expect are green products, quality brands you already know and, of course, a tote or two - all supporting the work we do every day in public radio.
It's the kind of shopping you can feel good about.
So, first up, something that could actually be called the ultimate: NPR and NPR Music Klean Kanteens. Produced with the environment in mind, these bottles are made with no BPA, phthalates, lead or other harmful substances. And, they're not just for keeping your tasty bevs chilled (for up to 24 hours, I might add), they'll also keep your latte hottay from your commute through lunch. We've got you covered on the lids too - each bottle comes with two leak-proof, easy-to-clean tops - the standard loop cap and a cafe version for warm drinks.
Stay hydrated folks! And stay tuned for daily gift ideas this December.
More Deals & ProductsGet information on new products, deals and the latest news about wearing, toting and reading your support for public radio:
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