Skip to Content
Offices in Cleveland & Columbus, Ohio 216-928-7700

New Report Highlights Risks Associated with Federal Criminal Trials, Why Defendants Commonly Choose Plea Deals


The federal criminal justice system has become notorious for severe penalties and aggressive prosecution, as well as conviction rates far above those in state criminal courts. While there may be opportunities for accused individuals to effectively exonerate themselves and beat their charges, it is more often than not the case that defendants face life-changing decisions after being charged with a federal crime – specifically the decision to plead guilty and take a less severe penalty, or exercise their Constitutional right to trial and risk years or even decades in federal prison.

That difficult decision may be an inherent part of the criminal justice system, but for many, it has become an issue that particularly plagues federal criminal defendants (over 97% of whom plead guilty), and has raised questions and concerns about whether innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. It is also the focus of a new report recently published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) – The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save it.

Among the many important rights criminal defendants have in the U.S., apart from the right to remain silent and the right to legal representation, is the right to a trial by a jury of their peers afforded to defendants by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While the right to a fair jury trial is indeed a hallmark of America’s criminal justice system, exercising that right, especially in federal court, can be a gamble where the stakes are a person’s own life and future.

As the NACDL notes, there is a substantial amount of evidence showing federal criminal defendants can be “coerced” into pleading guilty because the penalty for exercising their right to trial is too high of a risk. This is due to a number of factors, including:

  • Federal Sentencing Guidelines – Federal sentencing guidelines used by judges in federal criminal cases are notoriously severe. In fact, these guidelines have received widespread criticism not only for their severity, but also the stiff penalties and mandatory minimum sentences for crimes typically considered “non-violent,” including those involving drug crimes and white collar crimes. Even when defendants face substantial terms of imprisonment as part of negotiated plea deals with federal prosecutors, those terms can be far less than the potential sentences they would risk if they went to trial.
  • Disparities in Sentencing – In its report, the NACDL cited growing problems related to sentencing disparities in federal criminal cases. This includes one case noted by the NACDL involving a defendant who along with a partner was involved in a complex case of purchasing life insurance policies. After his partner plead guilty and was sentenced to 10 years, the defendant exercised his right to trial, at which his partner testified against him, was found guilty, and received a 45-year prison sentence.

While the underlying issues of the federal criminal justice system may be complex, systemic, and the result of a lack of reform and sensible legislative updates, the fact is that, in many ways, guilty pleas have replaced trials in federal criminal cases. Defendants who do exercise their right to trial face significantly more severe penalties and longer sentences is they lose – a prospect that for many simply is not much of a choice. As a result,

  • Defendants commonly waive their right to trial rather than attempting to hold the government accountable for proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt,
  • Defense attorneys are often forced to focus on negotiating the best possible terms for a guilty plea rather than fighting to ensure law enforcement and prosecutors adhere to the law and uphold the rights of defendants at a risk
  • Federal judges spend more time with the administration of plea allocutions rather than evaluating the conduct of law enforcement and the legal and constitutional aspects of the government’s case
  • The public is generally discouraged from actively exercising the right to trial, which the Constitution intended to serve as a function for oversight and added accountability, rather than an undue risk.

Correcting this serious problems requires a solution or solutions that would certainly be complex. While disparity between plea and trial sentencing is an issue, co-defendants who cooperate with U.S. Attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys through plea deals are still powerful prosecution tools and sometimes the only way to gain convictions. Additionally, because the federal criminal justice system is already overloaded, bringing the number of defendants who plead guilty to even just 90% would overwhelm the courts with cases. A perfect criminal justice system may be impossible, but a criminal justice system that is healthy and better than the status quo is one molded by introspectiveness, adaptability, and the constant search for injustices we’re collectively determined to address.

How a Proven Federal Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help You

Given the serious nature of federal criminal allegations, severe penalties, and the shortcomings organizations like the NACDL reveal, the need for experienced and proven defense is critical. Attorney Ian N. Friedman and our legal team at Friedman Nemecek Long & Grant, L.L.C., L.L.C. know that federal criminal cases can make for the most serious and high stakes criminal cases, and have earned a reputation for our abilities to protect the rights and interests of clients when they face a powerful and implacable justice system.

Our experience in federal court, coupled with our resources, considerable insight, and proven abilities enable our team to provide the creative and comprehensive representation clients need when it matters most. These attributes have proven invaluable to clients who faced criminal charges brought by the federal government, both in terms of negotiating plea agreements and reduced penalties, and making the most of a client’s decision to bring their case to trial.

If you have questions about federal criminal charges, our firm is available to review your case and discuss how we can help. Attorney Ian N. Friedman and our legal team have handled all types of federal criminal cases – from drug crimes to cybercrimes – throughout Ohio and other states in the U.S. Call or contact us for a free and confidential consultation.