By Anthony Papa
A new report by Human Rights Watch titled “An Offer You Can’t Refuse” revealed that only 3 percent of U.S. drug defendants in federal cases chose to go to trial instead of pleading guilty in 2012. The report explains the reason: Prosecutors warn defendants that if they refuse the plea, they will be charged with a more serious crime and end up with a much longer sentence.
Prosecutors live for convictions and they use mandatory minimum sentencing as a tool to secure convictions.
People’s fear of angering prosecutors by going to trial is real. The report shows that defendants who choose to exercise their constitutional rights to go to trial routinely face sentences three times greater than the original plea deals. This is an astounding revelation.
I know the pressure to take a deal and the disastrous consequences of taking my case to trial. In 1985, I refused a plea deal of three years and ended up being sentenced to 15 years to life.
I had been duped into delivering an envelope containing cocaine for $500 by a bowling buddy. During the criminal proceedings, the district attorney’s office discovered I was not a drug dealer, but nevertheless, prosecutors wanted to secure a conviction.
During the trial, the prosecutor asked how old my daughter was. I told him she was 7 years old. He told me if I chose to go to trial, the next time I would see my daughter is when she was 22. I was afraid of being away from my wife and daughter for three years. I refused the offer and a few days later I was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. I could not believe it.
Not taking the plea deal was the biggest mistake of my life. During my imprisonment I tried to commit suicide, I was stuck with a knife and I was beat down with a pipe.
But nothing hurt me more than my separation from my daughter, Stephanie. Although I tried to keep a relationship with her, she suffered greatly. No child should have experienced the horrible conditions she had to go through, such as body searches, long waiting lines and abusive corrections officers.
Little by little, her beautiful child-like demeanor was replaced with a sadness and depression generally seen in a much older person. By the time she was 12, she had become psychologically damaged, and so traumatized that she could no longer visit me.
I learned that prison did not end at the wall that separated me from society. It went far beyond it, reaching loved ones and friends of those incarcerated.
I commend Human Rights Watch for exposing how prosecutors get drug defendants to accept plea bargains by charging them with extraordinarily long sentences under mandatory minimums. It is time to end harsh mandatory minimums that both destroy lives and make a mockery of justice.
Anthony Papa is the manager of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and author of “15 to Life.”