The Maryland man refused to plead guilty to allegations that he had trafficked drugs, even though prosecutors were pressuring him to admit to the crime. The result: The man was convicted by a jury, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison because of the drug charges. Although this might sound like a reasonable sequence of events for a criminal case, advocates say that defendants may be admitting to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. These guidelines require harsh penalties for so-called repeat offenders.
Plea bargains are useful in some criminal cases, but criminal defendants should never feel pressured to admit to false allegations. Some Maryland attorneys say exactly that is happening, however, when defendants are left with few options as prosecutors bear down on them with threats of major sentences. Even though the mandatory minimums are rarely used in the state, human rights advocates say that the simple existence of those rules can be enough to scare those facing drug charges into surrendering some of their rights.
In fact, experts say that prosecutors often seek the most severe penalties for specific crimes because they need to show a strong face for future criminal cases. That may benefit the prosecutors’ system as a whole, but it does little to help criminal defendants who do not deserve the full weight of the law for their relatively minor offenses.
The trend toward clemency for certain types of crimes has been slow to come, but instructions from the Justice Department this summer may change the way that criminal cases are managed in Maryland. Federal officials are urging state leaders to carefully consider whether long sentences are always warranted for criminal cases. Criminal defense attorneys say that the environment is improving, but it could be a long time before criminal drug cases are truly treated fairly in the state of Maryland.