War on Drugs

Russia's Imprisonment of Britney Griner Has Some Unfortunate American Parallels

The U.S. justice system also has a staggeringly low acquittal rate and over-charges on drug offenses. 


On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order declaring international hostage-taking a national emergency. The order came in the wake of national outrage over the imprisonment of WNBA player Britney Griner, who was imprisoned in Russia this February on charges that she was found in possession of cannabis vape cartridges. Griner, whose trial is ongoing, faces up to 10 years in a Russian labor camp if convicted. In May, the Biden administration formally declared Griner wrongfully detained.

Her arrest has sparked indignation nationwide. "[Griner's] prospects—and the chances she will receive anything resembling impartial treatment—are profoundly concerning," wrote The Washington Post editorial board this March, "The fact that Ms. Griner is gay—she is the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike—is cause for even deeper worry given that LGBTQ people face open hostility and repression from Russian authorities."

While outrage over Russia's court system is warranted, such criticism is also warranted here in the U.S. For instance, after Griner pled guilty to Russian drug charges on July 7, The Independent reported that Russian courts have a 99 percent conviction rate and that Griner, all but guaranteed to lose at trial, may have pled guilty in order to negotiate a shorter sentence. 

However, according to Pew Research Center, only 2 percent of cases go to trial in U.S. federal courts. Ninety percent of cases involve guilty pleas, and 8 percent are dismissed. Of the 2 percent of cases that go to trial, 83 percent of defendants are convicted. According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, "about 90 to 95 percent of both federal and state court cases are resolved" through plea deals. As in Russia, defendants in the U.S. must make a disturbing gamble: Plead guilty, even if you aren't, to get a lower sentence than your charges would suggest; or, fight the charges at trial and face a longer, harsher sentence if you're found guilty—which you are overwhelmingly likely to be. 

In the United States, such pleas are further incentivized by a draconian cash bail system. As Reason's Billy Binion wrote, the plea bargain "epitomizes government coercion. It epitomizes what the Founders warned against." Binion argues that plea deals are "a creative way to subvert the Constitution, emboldened by local legislatures with a slew of tough-on-crime charging and sentencing laws."

Further, the Biden administration rightfully frames Griner as wrongfully detained, yet it does nothing to help Americans jailed on souped-up drug charges. According to the Sentencing Project, over 400,000 Americans remain detained in U.S. jails on drug-related charges in 2019. Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) pointed out this particular hypocrisy in a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday. "Is the Biden/Harris administration going to use their power to release the countless of Americans who are currently being held in our own prisons for cannabis possession? Of course not." 

While the nation is justified in its anger over Griner's imprisonment, it should also turn this outrage toward changing things at home. "People are outraged that Brittney Griner is likely pleading guilty to something she didn't do because she faces 10 years in prison," writes Rebecca Kavanagh, a criminal defense lawyer, on Twitter. "That is outrageous—and it's something that happens here all the time."

Britney Griner should not be facing a single day in a Russian prison for drug possession. Nor should any American here at home.