Between 1980 and 2013, the number of jailed federal drug defendants rose from 4,749 to 100,026 — more than 2,000%. As of this fall, according to HRW, 50.1% of all federal prisoners were doing time for drugs.
The ugly truth some people don't realize is many of these drug dealers are the lowest guys on the totem pole who didn't have info they could trade for a favorable plea agreement.
"The public does not realize how many low-level guys are in [federal] prison ... We lock up the lowest fruit in drug conspiracies," one former U.S. attorney told HRW. "I once asked another U.S. Attorney with 30 years as a prosecutor how many times he'd put a major drug player in prison. He said he could count them on one hand."
The most common function for a convicted drug defendant (23%) is "courier," or a person who transports drugs, according to a Sentencing Commission analysis cited by HRW. That's followed by "wholesaler" (21.2%), which is defined as a person who buys or sells one ounce of drugs or possesses two ounces. The next-most common is "street-level dealer," (17.2%) — people who distribute less than an ounce of drugs.
These crimes are all pretty low-level compared to importers, organizers/leaders, growers/manufacturers, and financiers.
Low-level drug dealers can still get stiff sentences, however, because of federal conspiracy law. Prosecutors can use conspiracy law to charge people with distributing a larger quantity of narcotics than they personally handled if they were part of a bigger conspiracy.
One casualty of conspiracy law is a woman named Natacha Jihad Pizarro-Campos, a Florida mother who got involved with a drug dealer when she was just 21. He helped her out financially, and she helped him with his drug business, according to HRW. Pizarro-Campos, a drug user herself, ended up selling 406.7 grams of meth in five drug deals.
However, there were allegedly between 1.5 and 5 kilograms involved in the drug conspiracy, according to HRW. Apparently, under pressure to avoid being charged with that full amount, she pleaded guilty to distributing 500 grams or more. Pizarro-Campos ended up getting 10 years in prison for those five drug deals.
Another low-level person, Mandy Martinson, also ended up with a long prison sentence after being charged with conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of an illegal drug. Martinson dated a meth dealer for a few weeks in 2003 and allegedly helped him become a more "organized" drug dealer.
That boyfriend testified against her and got 12 years in prison. Martinson is still serving a 15-year sentence.
"If you’re charged with the conspiracy, you could be the lowest person in the conspiracy, but yet you can be held accountable for everything that happened," Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has previously told me.
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