As states try to lower prison populations by looking for alternatives to incarceration and shortening sentences, some prosecutors complain they are being denied tools they need to negotiate plea deals, according to a recent NPR story.

Red states like Texas and Louisiana – seen as traditionally tough on crime – are now leaders in prison reform. Instead of locking up every defendant, the states have explored alternatives like drug treatment and work release programs, the story said.

But efforts to lessen sentences have been criticized by state and federal prosecutors who fear a push for lighter sentences might take away leverage in negotiations with defendants.

The vast majority of cases in the United States end in plea bargains, often because defendants are afraid of the harsh sentences they may face at trial.

According to the NPR story:

Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and ’90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors’ hands when bargaining with defendants.

“For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone’s head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want,” says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.

Prosecutors use the threat of long sentences to encourage cooperation, and just how a case is charged can have an impact on how long an inmate is incarcerated – and how willing they may be to inform on a co-conspirator.

Lawmakers also play a major role in determining sentence lengths.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has complained that lawmakers have hindered recent reform efforts by passing laws that create new crimes and lengthen sentences.

The prison population in Pennsylvania rose by several hundred inmates in 2013, even though the population was projected to decline in state facilities.

“You say you want change, but you keep passing the same bills,” Wetzel told lawmakers in February.

At the federal level, Attorney General Eric Holder has championed sentencing reform for non-violent drug offenders. But the effort has been criticized by federal prosecutors, who claim attempts to reduce mandatory minimum sentences would hurt their ability to get defendants to cooperate.

Some prosecutors claim they will lose bargaining power with a broad reduction in sentences.

According to the NPR story:

Prosecutors insist they use the threat of harsh sentences responsibly but say it’s a tool they can’t do without. Last fall, at a hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the then-executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, Scott Burns, warned against rolling back drug sentences.

“Why now? With crime at record lows, why are we looking at sweeping changes?” Burns said. He endorsed “smart on crime” reforms such as drug courts, but he cautioned against depriving prosecutors of “one of our most effective sticks.”

In 2012, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation aimed at shrinking the state’s inmate population by expanding programs for non-violent drug offenders and keeping some offenders out of state prisons. But, as the Patriot-News reported, county judges ordered more prison sentences than expected, causing the state’s prison population to grow in 2013.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at

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