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Mandatory Minimum/ Minimum Mandatory Sentences: False Admissions of Guilt in Order to Obtain Reduced Sentences

Great and long-overdue news from our Attorney General! Fewer mandatory sentences for non-violent offenders.

More discretion will now be exercised by federal prosecutors (Assistant United States Attorneys) when charging Federal crimes. And, federal trial judges will have more discretion to impose fairer and more appropriate sentences in certain cases.

Much too often, the most serious crimes carrying the harshest sentences under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are charged when it is not necessary or fair to do so. Often, charging certain crimes trigger mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimum sentences are minimum sentences that a judge must impose upon a conviction. In other words, the judge has no discretion to “depart downward”.

Since first introduced by the United States Sentencing Commission in 1984, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines have been a disaster in almost every respect. They have served only to ensure that the federal criminal justice system favors the prosecution (the government) at every stage of a federal criminal case. In effect, the sentencing guidelines have made a mockery of the cornerstone of the American justice system – the presumption of innocence. The federal prosecutors are, in essence, in charge of the federal courts – not the judges!

After a recent United States Supreme Court decision, federal judges, finally, are no longer bound by the sentencing guidelines, although they must still consider them as factors and honor mandatory minimum sentences except under certain limited circumstances.

Pleading guilty to obtain a lower sentence in federal court:

Under the Federal Guidelines, in order for a defendant to obtain a sentence reduction, the person charged with a crime or crimes (the defendant) must admit actual guilt to each count he or she pleads to. On the surface, this may seem reasonable. However, there are many instances in which a defendant pleads guilty solely for the purpose of resolving his or her case and to avoid the risk of going to trial, being convicted, and almost certainly receiving a harsher sentence, even though they are innocent.

For illustrative purposes, let me give you a couple of examples – of hundreds that take place every year. A defendant was charged with a federal crime, of which he was absolutely innocent. His wife had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and they had three minor children. His options: (a) plead guilty to a crime he did not commit and be sentenced to a year in custody; or (b) go to trial and risk a sentence of twenty years. He did what any good husband and father would do, he pled guilty.

Of course, in order to receive the one-year sentence, he had to admit actual guilt – under oath. In other words, to secure the one-year sentence, he committed perjury when he stated that he was, in fact, guilty (when he was not), with the full knowledge and acquiescence of the government. The judge, the prosecutors and the probation officers all knew that he was innocent of the offense being pled to, but they didn’t care; they simply wanted to conclude the case and were willing to “look the other way”. It happens all the time in federal courts throughout the country.

In another case, a woman was charged with a federal tax crime. She had a good defense to the charges. However, if convicted after a trial, she would have received a sentence of about four years. She was not in good health and desperately wanted to live out her remaining days with her husband. So, she took a plea, admitted guilt to a crime of which she believed she was innocent, and was sentenced to one year of incarceration. While in federal prison, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and received the typically horrible medical care while in federal custody. She died two weeks after her release.

The hypocrisy in the federal criminal justice system is all too common. Thankfully, Attorney General Eric Holder, a career prosecutor with a conscience, seems to be genuinely concerned about justice and fairness. Hopefully, federal prosecutors and judges will follow suit as the Attorney General’s directives are implemented.

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