|John Ashcroft Must Die, Take 87
||[Sep. 23rd, 2003|02:40 pm]
Ashcroft Limiting Prosecutors' Use of Plea Bargains
Attorney General John Ashcroft today made it tougher for federal prosecutors to strike plea bargains with criminal defendants, requiring attorneys to seek the most serious charges possible in almost all cases.
The policy directive issued by Mr. Ashcroft is the latest in a series of steps the Justice Department has taken in recent months to combat what it sees as dangerously lenient practices by some federal prosecutors and judges.
The move also effectively expands to the entire gamut of federal crimes the attorney general's tough stance on the death penalty, which he has sought in numerous cases over the objections of federal prosecutors.
"The direction I am giving our U.S. attorneys today is direct and emphatic," Mr. Ashcroft said at a speech in Cincinnati. Except in "limited, narrow circumstances," he said, federal prosecutors must seek to bring charges for "the most serious, readily provable offense" that can be supported by the facts of the case.
But critics in the defense bar and some federal prosecutors said the new policy would serve only to further centralize authority in the hands of Washington policymakers, discourage prosecutors from seeking plea bargains and ratchet up sentences in criminal cases that may not warrant them.
"What is driving this," said Gerald D. Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, "is that a tough-on-crime attorney general is pandering to the public, and he knows that this will play well."
Several federal prosecutors said they were deeply concerned about the new policy, which was first reported in The Wall Street Journal.
A West Coast prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while it might be difficult for officials in Washington to enforce the new policy, it nonetheless puts significant pressure on prosecutors to explain their actions and will most likely result in fewer plea bargains in many jurisdictions.
"There's no doubt this could have a real impact on all of us," the prosecutor said.
The policy change is likely to escalate a debate that has become increasingly contentious over how prosecutors and judges mete out justice in the federal courts.
With the backing of many Republicans in Congress, the Justice Department has sought to impose greater uniformity and "accountability" in federal cases.
In addition to the expanded use of the death penalty, Mr. Ashcroft also announced a plan last month to track data on judges who give lighter sentences than federal guidelines prescribe.
But dissenters attacked the monitoring plan as a judicial black list, arguing that denying judges and prosecutors the discretion to analyze the facts of a case is a mistake.
And two Supreme Court justices, Stephen G. Breyer and Anthony M. Kennedy, have given speeches in the last six weeks arguing that Congressionally mandated "minimum" sentences, which also curtail judicial discretion, have created a system in which sentences sometimes are unfair or too long.
A decade ago, Attorney General Janet Reno enacted a policy to give federal prosecutors more discretion over how their cases should be handled by allowing for an "individualized assessment" of the facts and circumstances of the case.
But Mr. Ashcroft's directive effectively scales back that initiative in an effort to restrict the use of plea bargains and create what the Justice Department said would be more "transparency" in federal prosecutions.
Plea bargains are a popular and powerful tool for prosecutors to secure the cooperation of defendants and to speed cases through the system without devoting additional time and resources to a trial. Some 96 percent of the 60,000 cases handled by federal prosecutors in 2001, the last year for which complete figures were available, resulted in plea bargains, officials said.
But the new policy states that prosecutors must seek the most severe sentence allowed by law unless there are overriding considerations.
Cases that allow for exceptions include the "substantial assistance" of a cooperating defendant, the drain on resources that a trial might cause and the Justice Department's approval of a "fast-track" program used to expedite prosecutions, like the type used in Southwest border states to prosecute illegal immigrants.
Dan Collins, an associate deputy attorney general, said the new policy sought to ensure that decisions were driven by the facts of a crime and "not the luck of the draw in terms of which prosecutor happens to work on your case or which judge is assigned to it."
Despite the large percentage of cases that result in plea bargains, Justice Department officials said they did not expect the new policy to mean a "significant" reduction in their use, but they added that it was too early to predict the ultimate impact in terms of pleas or length of sentences.
Mr. Lefcourt of the defense lawyers association said Mr. Ashcroft's directive "is just bad policy" because it requires prosecutors to get the approval of a senior Justice Department official, including an assistant attorney general in Washington or a politically appointed United States attorney or another supervisor, before executing a plea bargain.
"This is taking discretion away from the U.S. attorneys' offices," he said. "The prosecutors on the ground who are most involved in the facts of the cases should be making these decisions. It shouldn't be dictated to them."
Basically, Ashcroft is playing tough-on-crime politics again, ignoring the opinions of judges and justices, and doing everything he can to fill up the already-backlogged court system and the already-crowded prison system. He is indulging his "eye-for-an-eye" philosophy of justice, and guaranteeing that circumstances can't cut in the favor of people who make a single mistake. This, combined with the rest of his meglomania, is revolting and scary. The New McCarthyism winds up one more notch....