Monday, September 26, 2011

In New York Times report on unprecedented power of prosecutors, Florida is front and center

Posted By on Mon, Sep 26, 2011 at 10:03 AM

After the we saw the headline in the New York Times which read "Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors," we had a hunch that the report, though nationwide in scope, would draw heavily on the state of Florida. "Tough on crime" has been a mantra of the state legislature for decades, and mandatory-minimum prison sentencing is still firmly embedded in state statutes, despite the increasing evidence suggesting that one-size-fits-all prison sentences are not an effective way to rehabilitate career criminals. (For a more thorough examination of mandatory minimum sentencing as it pertains to drug charges in Florida, see our March 31 cover story on the issue.) Sure enough, we were right--the article was submitted from Gainesville, and at many points digresses to talk about the Florida court system and its mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Here's an excerpt:

After decades of new laws to toughen sentencing for criminals, prosecutors have gained greater leverage to extract guilty pleas from defendants and reduce the number of cases that go to trial, often by using the threat of more serious charges with mandatory sentences or other harsher penalties.

Some experts say the process has become coercive in many state and federal jurisdictions, forcing defendants to weigh their options based on the relative risks of facing a judge and jury rather than simple matters of guilt or innocence. In effect, prosecutors are giving defendants more reasons to avoid having their day in court.

...Here in Florida, which has greatly toughened sentencing since the 1990s, felony defendants who opt for trial now routinely face the prospect of higher charges that mean prison terms 2, 5, or even 20 times as long as if they had pleaded guilty. In many cases, the process is reversed, and stiffer charges are dismissed in return for a plea.

As a real-world example, the article cites Florida v. Shane Guthrie, a case which is reportedly scheduled for trial later this year:

After Mr. Guthrie, 24, was arrested here last year, accused of beating his girlfriend and threatening her with a knife, the prosecutor offered him a deal for two years in prison plus probation.

Mr. Guthrie rejected that, and a later offer of five years, because he believed that he was not guilty, his lawyer said. But the prosecutor's response was severe: he filed a more serious charge that would mean life imprisonment if Mr. Guthrie is convicted later this year.

Because of a state law that increased punishments for people who had recently been in prison, like Mr. Guthrie, the sentence would be mandatory. So what he could have resolved for a two-year term could keep him locked up for 50 years or more.

Which reminds of this incredibly dark bit of dark humor we heard over the weekend: be careful what you wish for.

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