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Ashcroft Toughens BargainingRules for Federal Prosecutors Makes It Harder for Prosecutors to Strike Bargains

By Eric Lichtblau

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Attorney General John Ashcroft on Monday made it tougher for federal prosecutors to strike plea bargains with criminal defendants, requiring attorneys to seek the most serious charges possible in almost all cases.

The policy directive issued by Ashcroft is the latest in a series of steps the Justice Department has taken in recent months to combat what it sees as dangerously lenient practices by some federal prosecutors and judges.

The move also effectively expands to the entire gamut of federal crimes the attorney general’s tough stance on the death penalty, which he has sought in numerous cases over the objections of federal prosecutors.

“The direction I am giving our U.S. attorneys today is direct and emphatic,” Ashcroft said at a speech in Milwaukee. Except in “limited, narrow circumstances,” he said, federal prosecutors must seek to bring charges for “the most serious, readily provable offense” that can be supported by the facts of the case.

But critics in the defense bar and some federal prosecutors said the new policy would serve only to further centralize authority in the hands of Washington policy-makers, discourage prosecutors from seeking plea bargains, and ratchet up sentences in criminal cases that may not warrant them.

“What is driving this,” said Gerald D. Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, “is that a tough-on-crime attorney general is pandering to the public, and he knows that this will play well.”

Several federal prosecutors said they were deeply concerned about the new policy, which was first reported in The Wall Street Journal.

A West Coast prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while it may be difficult for officials in Washington to enforce the new policy, it nonetheless puts significant pressure on prosecutors to explain their actions and will most likely result in fewer plea bargains in many jurisdictions.

“There’s no doubt this could have a real impact on all of us,” the prosecutor said.

The policy change is likely to escalate a debate that has become increasingly contentious over how prosecutors and judges mete out justice in the federal courts.

With the backing of many Republicans in Congress, the Justice Department has sought to impose greater uniformity and “accountability” in federal cases.

In addition to the expanded use of the death penalty, Ashcroft also announced a plan last month to track data on judges who give lighter sentences than federal guidelines prescribe.