Ashcroft Limits Plea Bargaining

Attorney General John Ashcroft gestures during a speech to law enforcement personnel at the newly-constructed National Constitution in Philadelphia Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2003. Ashcroft appeared in Philadelphia Wednesday as part of a nationwide campaign to counter criticism that the USA Patriot Act undermines civil liberties and the Constitution. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Attorney General John Ashcroft is directing federal prosecutors to seek maximum charges and penalties more often in criminal cases and to limit use of plea bargains to get convictions, Justice Department officials said Monday.

Plea bargains still would be permitted, but would be more closely tied to actions by defendants, such as guarantees of cooperation in an ongoing investigation, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The current guidelines give federal prosecutors far more flexibility in determining which charges to bring based on the facts of individual cases.

Further details of the new guidelines for were to be unveiled later Monday by Justice Department officials.

Ashcroft did not provide any specifics when asked about the policy following a speech in Milwaukee. But he said the goal is to ensure equal justice is pursued nationwide by U.S. attorneys.

"It's important that when the law is broken in Milwaukee, it's attended by the same consequences as when it's broken in Denver," Ashcroft said.

The move follows efforts by Ashcroft earlier this year to apply the federal death penalty more broadly across the country and require prosecutors to more frequently appeal cases when judges hand down sentences lighter than those included in federal sentencing guidelines.

Gerald Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the new directive would make the federal criminal system "inflexible and problematic" because fewer defendants will plead guilty to harsher offenses.

Lefcourt also predicted it would further burden a corrections system already strained by a record number of prisoners.

"If all you want is to have everyone who is ever charged with something warehoused, this is a good thing," Lefcourt said. "It's not just about warehousing people. It's about a fair and sure system."

According to Justice Department statistics, most federal defendants enter guilty pleas — although it is not clear how many cut deals that reduce their sentences.

From October 1998 to the following September, there were 66,055 federal convictions. In 62,404 cases — or 94 percent — defendants pleaded guilty. Only 3,236 went to jury trial.