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 yesterday.
Plea bargains still would be permitted but tied more closely to defendants’ actions, such as guarantees of cooperation in ongoing investigations, the officials said, speaking on the 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.
Justice Department officials were to announce further details about the guidelines late yesterday.
Mr. Ashcroft did not provide any specifics when asked about the policy after a speech in Milwaukee, but he said the goal was to ensure that U.S. attorneys pursue equal justice nationwide.
“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,” Mr. Ashcroft said.
The move follows efforts by Mr. Ashcroft earlier this year to apply the federal death penalty more broadly across the country and require prosecutors to appeal cases more frequently 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 directive would make the federal criminal system “inflexible and problematic” because fewer defendants would plead guilty to harsher offenses.
Mr. Lefcourt also predicted that 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,” Mr. Lefcourt said. “It’s not just about warehousing people. It’s about a fair and sure system.”