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Are mandatory federal sentence laws limiting defendants' options?

Facing the specter of federal criminal prosecution is likely to be anxiety inducing. Facing down prosecutors with the weight and resources of the federal government might be intimidating, which could play a role in the outcome of criminal charges.

A recent report from the New York Times uncovers an ongoing issue related to federal drug charges. Statistics show that 97 percent of those facing federal drug charges wind up pleading guilty. Criminal law observers suggest this is related to the alternatives defendants face, which are incredibly stringent sentences.

Federal drug crimes typically have mandatory prison sentences associated with them, which will automatically be handed down if a person pleads guilty to charges. If a person considers challenging charges, there is a possibility of sentencing enhancements that are left up to a judge's discretion, which could lead to a life sentence in prison if a person has prior convictions on his or her record.

Officials from the organization Human Rights Watch have called this the "trial penalty." They essentially say that the possibility of especially harsh criminal sentences discourages defendants from challenging charges in court. When people feel as though the deck is stacked against them, they may opt for a guilty plea and a mandatory minimum sentence.

Fairness is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system, so the idea that someone might be discouraged to exercise their rights is concerning. When North Carolina residents face charges of any nature, it's important to know what legal options exist. Carefully weighing available alternatives can help a person work toward resolving charges in the most positive way possible.

Source: New York Times, "Prosecutors Draw Fire for Sentences Called Harsh," Erik Eckholm, Dec. 5, 2013

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