Federal Legislation Regarding the Trial Penalty and Mandatory Minimums
Earlier this year, several members of Congress introduced a bill aimed at adding additional statutory protections for the Constitutional Right to Trial. Entitled the "Right to Trial Act," the legislation would require Judges during sentencing to consider whether an increased sentence was threatened or imposed based on a decision by the defendant to proceed to trial. The legislation would also require judges during sentencing to consider the plea offers and sentences received by co-defendants or similarly situated defendants who plead guilty instead of preceding to trial. Finally, the bill proposes that judges have the discretion to impose a sentence below an established statutory minimum if necessary to protect the constitutional right to trial.
Requiring judges to consider the impact of sentencing differentials when arriving at an appropriate sentence after conviction at trial and creating a safety-valve to help protect against the use of mandatory minimum statutes to coerce pleas of guilty are much needed steps forward in creating a more transparent criminal justice system and helping ensure that defendants are not being punished more harshly simply because they have chosen to exercise one of our most fundamental constitutional rights - the right to trial. This will be an important bill to monitor as it makes its way through Congress.
Excerpts from the bill are below:
“(8) the need to protect the constitutional right to a trial, including by prohibiting impairment of such a right in any case in which an increased sentence is threatened or imposed based on a defendant’s decision to go to trial and not accept a plea offer;
“(A) crimes involving similarly situated codefendants or group conduct, the plea offer, if applicable, and each sentence (and anticipated sentence) of any similarly situated codefendant or similarly situated other person charged in the same or related offense who pled guilty; and
“(B) crimes not involving codefendants or group conduct, the plea agreements and the sentences for similarly situated defendants who pled guilty to similar offenses; and
“(10) whether imposition of a statutory minimum sentence would constitute a penalty for asserting the constitutional right to a trial, thereby warranting imposition of a sentence below the statutory minimum.”.
(b) Authority.—Section 3553(e) of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting after “committed an offense.” the following: “The court shall have the authority to impose a sentence below a level established by statute as a minimum sentence so as to protect the constitutional right to trial.”.