The Justice Department regularly coerces defendants in drug cases to plead guilty by threatening them with steep prison sentences or stacking charges to increase time behind bars, says the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. The group says defendants who take their fate to a judge or jury face sentences on average 11 years longer than those who plead guilty, NPR reports. A whopping 97 percent of suspects plead guilty – no surprise, says the group’s Jamie Fellner, given the essentially unchecked power federal prosecutors wield. “As long as there are mandatory minimums, prosecutors dictate the sentences by the charges they bring,” Fellner said. About half of those in costly and overcrowded U.S. prisons got there on drug convictions. Even though many of those inmates worked on the ground floor of drug operations, they still serve long prison sentences because of 5- and 10-year mandatory terms that Congress enacted during the heart of the crack cocaine scare in the 1980s. Prosecutors have the option of adding more charges based on a person’s prior offenses, including low-level drug possession cases. Human Rights Watch uncovered dozens of cases where defendants got sent to prison for nearly a half century for first-time drug offenses.