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May 2, 2016

Reviewing the type of federal drug case that the SRCA should most impact

Mandatory_minimums_1abe826ceaaedee05283c916fe4b2585.nbcnews-ux-600-480This lengthy new NBC news piece, headlined "As Drug Sentencing Debate Rages, 'Ridiculous' Sentences Persist," focuses on one notable federal drug defendant subject to a notable federal drug mandatory minimum that could be impacted by federal statutory sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:

When he was an addict and petty criminal, Leo Guthmiller knew little, and cared less, about the federal government's harsh drug sentencing laws. The worst he'd endured was 90 days at the county lockup in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Then, last April, nearly two years after he'd stopped popping painkillers and smoking methamphetamine, Guthmiller was arrested by two federal agents as he headed for a drug counseling session. He later learned why: a junkie and his girlfriend, facing stiff prison sentences, had told investigators that Guthmiller had introduced them to his meth dealer around the time he was getting sober. That made him the middleman in a street-level drug distribution scheme.

Because this was a federal case, and the amount of meth exceeded 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds, Guthmiller was suddenly facing at least 10 years behind bars as a co-conspirator.... The charge thrust him, unwittingly, into a raging debate over a pillar of America's war on drugs: mandatory-minimum sentences. Intended to sideline high-level traffickers, the laws have been used to sweep thousands of nonviolent, small-time offenders into epic prison terms....

Guthmiller didn't dispute the couple's accusation. But he bristled at the government's portrayal of him as a scheming operative. Besides, he was a changed man: sober, working, studying for his GED, leading AA meetings, completing a drug court program, newly married. Still, he pleaded guilty, unwilling to risk a trial that could end in an even longer prison term. "I'm not an innocent person, but at the same time this is all a bit much, I feel," Guthmiller told NBC News.

At his sentencing in mid-February, U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard agreed. He praised Guthmiller's turnaround, but said federal drug statutes gave him no choice. He called the case "Exhibit A" on why Congress needed to pass The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would give judges more flexibility. "A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in a case like this is absolutely ridiculous," Gerrard said from the bench. "And the only reason I am imposing the sentence that I am imposing today is because I have to."...

The judge's remarks caught the attention of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. As he prepared to spend the next decade behind bars, Guthmiller found himself cast as a case study in America's unforgiving drug laws. "The whole idea is these 10-year sentences were written by Congress to go after serious drug offenders, and they're being applied to a guy who is home and is going to drive himself to prison," said Kevin Ring, the group's vice president. "He obviously isn't this major criminal that everyone should be so scared of."

This is a key point in the drug-law reform effort, which has inspired an unlikely alliance among Democrats and Republicans, many of whom gathered at the White House last week to discuss their campaign. Mandatory minimum sentences, toughened during 1980s crime panics, established criteria under which judges had to impose lengthy prison terms for drug trafficking. The penalties depended on the type of drug, the amount of it, the offender's criminal history and the nature of the crime — including whether the offense involved violence, weapons or children. The new laws triggered an explosion in the U.S. prison population, contributing to a dramatic decline in crime rates but also costing taxpayers millions.

That cost-benefit balance has since tipped. Researchers now say that mass incarceration's impact on the crime rate has ebbed. Studies show that the likelihood of punishment, rather than the length of a prison sentence, is more likely to deter criminals. And there are now millions of nonviolent ex-offenders — a disproportionate number of whom are black — unable to contribute to the economy, including many who return to crime. Reformers argue that the money America spends on prisons would be better used for cops, schools and alternatives to jail, such as probation and drug courts.

In a 2011 report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimums focused too heavily on the amount of drugs and not enough on the offender's role in the trafficking operation. The commission has since loosened some of its guidelines retroactively, allowing thousands of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders to leave prison early. President Barack Obama joined the effort by granting clemency to many others.

Those moves are considered Band-Aids compared to the larger fix offered by the Sentencing Reform Act, legislation that would allow judges to impose shorter prison terms for bit players. But the bipartisan bill is bogged down by election-year politics. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has tried to change the system from within, ordering federal prosecutors to focus on high-level dealers. It appears to be working: the number of mandatory-minimum cases has dropped to 45 percent of all federal drug cases, down from 66.8 percent in 2007.

John Higgins, chief of the narcotics unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nebraska, said in a statement that his prosecutors followed the Justice Department's advice, seeking mandatory minimums "only in those cases that warrant it." That included Guthmiller's, he said. He declined to go into detail, but pointed to court hearings in which prosecutors alleged that Guthmiller's 2013 matchmaking between the dealer and the couple led to the sale of 15-pounds of meth. "Methamphetamine is the number one drug threat in Nebraska," Higgins said.

May 2, 2016 at 09:12 AM | Permalink


FAMM does amazing work.

Posted by: xafpd | May 2, 2016 9:24:24 AM

meanwhile ... Monday Supreme Court orders have a few matters of interest, including Justice Breyer returning to his long term concern for extended death penalty appeals.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2016 9:43:54 AM

Ocasio v. United States also decided.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2016 10:08:08 AM

What is amazing to me---Barack Obama is ultimately responsible for this sentence, and yet he yammers about the need to release criminals. Why isn't he stopping this alleged nonsense on the front-end?

This case points up the issue perfectly---from most vantage points, this seems like like an unduly harsh sentence. In any sentencing regimes, you are going to get sentences like that, and it represents a tragedy to the person who suffers it. However,whereto create structures that mitigate these sorts of occurrences, you have over-lenient sentences which wind up being tragedies for innocent people. Wendell Callahan is a perfect example---no matter what BS Doug wants to throw out about the true responsibility for the triple-killing--the fact is that a discretionary decision let him get out and shouldn't have. He wasn't a non-violent offender, yet he was released under a program that only was supposed to release non-violent offenders. Bottom line--the American people, and rightly so, don't trust the so-called experts with sentencing policy. Revolving-door justice wasn't a myth made up by politicians--it was reality.

And you guys know better---you know goddamned well that for every case like this, there are many others where the defendant pleads guilty to a far lesser crime than he or she committed. That,of course, gets airbrushed. And all of you people have far more outrage over a case like this than Olu Stevens handing out probation to home invaders who stuck a gun in the face of a mother and tool $1000.

America experimented with the be nice to criminals approach, and we got a lot of bloodshed--needless bloodshed. Now you people know what lenience does, and you support it anyway--that makes you all moral pygmies.

Posted by: federalist | May 2, 2016 9:16:34 PM

Couple of follow-up questions, federalist:

1. How exactly do you expect Prez Obama to be "stopping this alleged nonsense on the front-end"? He has urged reforms through Congress, and his AGs have issued memos urging US Attorneys not to always use MM charges in all cases. Do you expect him to monitor the day-to-day charging decisions of 5000 AUSAs"?

2. You say Callahan was not a non-violent offender, but this is how he was formally prosecuted by the feds. Who should be blamed for this? Hindsight is always clear, but what are the right lessons to take from these kinds of ugly cases on both sides? I continue to stuggle to understand how you think the law should be structured and operate to fix problems at both extremes.

3. Do you think the rest of the Western world --- which has much lower levels of incarceration and seemingly lower levels of violent crimes --- is still in the midst of "experiment[ing] with the be nice to criminals approach"? Just curious as to your sense of why it seems lots of other nations are able to have a lot less incarceration and a lot less crime.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 3, 2016 9:08:52 PM

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