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Drug sentencing guidelines often fail to serve justice

As part of its aggressive “War on Drugs,” federal drug statutes are supplemented with tough sentencing guidelines. While these guidelines are technically not mandatory, judges are frequently expected to issue sentences close to what the guidelines suggest. These guidelines often seek to lock up defendants for many years, even for nonviolent offenses. They rarely ask the court to take the defendants’ individual circumstances into account.

For example, an 89-year-old man who recently pleaded guilty to drug charges in federal court in Detroit would be sentenced to 14 years in prison if the sentencing guidelines had their way. Fortunately, in this case even prosecutors are recognizing that justice would not be served to incarcerate an elderly World War II veteran for that long.

The defendant was arrested in 2011 after being pulled over on I-94 in Michigan. The state trooper who performed the traffic stop discovered more than 200 pounds of cocaine inside. Investigators claimed that they had evidence that he had served as a drug mule for several years. The defendant said that he was desperate for money. He pleaded guilty in federal court earlier in October.

After considering the man’s age, war record and other factors, prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced to five years in prison. While that is much shorter than the 14 years recommended by federal guidelines, it may still amount to a life sentence for a man in his late 80s. His defense attorney plans to ask the court for a shorter sentence. The defendant has already agreed to pay $500,000 in fines, which includes him having to sell his lily nursery.

Source: The Guardian, “89-year-old man pleads guilty to drug mule charge in cocaine scheme,” Oct. 8, 2013

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