Drug cases: overloading federal justice system.


Criminal justice expert Kathleen F. Brickey argues that the growing trend of placing crime within federal jurisdiction is straining the federal justice system. The federal government's crackdown on drugs is a major factor behind the overload.


America's obsession with the crackdown on crime is taking its toll on the Federal justice system, maintains Kathleen F. Brickey, James Carr Professor of Criminal Jurisprudence, Washington University. The increasing practice of bringing crime into Federal jurisdiction has overloaded court dockets, overcrowded prisons, overdrawn budgets, and overextended the duties of U.S. judges.

"The Federal system is strained to capacity due, in large part, to the government's war on drugs," she points out. "This war has skewed the Federal criminal justice system at every possible level." In 1995, the Federal prison system will house more than 92,000 offenders. In addition, over 10,500 sentenced Federal offenders will reside in state and local jails.

Brickey cites a 500% rise--in a four-year-period--of felony drug prosecutions in the local District of Columbia courts. In the Western District of Texas, the number of drug defendants increased by 80% in a single year. A report of the Federal Courts Study Committee indicated that such districts with overflowing court dockets are "virtually unable to try civil cases." Brickey notes that "Giving thousands of drug cases priority must be done at the expense of civil justice, which becomes a casualty of the war on drugs."

Stringent laws that include minimum mandatory prison sentences without the possibility of parole are sending these offenders, many of them sentenced for minor drug charges, to already overcrowded prisons. The prospect of plea bargaining offers no relief. Historically, 85-90% of Federal criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains. A drug defendant who faces a lengthy mandatory minimum prison term has little incentive to negotiate a guilty plea, even if acquittal seems unlikely. Consequently, a large percentage of these cases result in jury trials.

Although more than 60 statutes impose mandatory minimum sentences, only a handful are used in practice. Approximately...

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