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April 10, 2013 12:19 PM The Wildly Disproportionate Cruelty of Drug Sentences

By Rhiannon M. Kirkland

John Horner was working at a fast-food restaurant when he was befriended by the police officer to whom he sold some of his pain medication. The result of this mistake: 25 years in jail. Horner is a 46-year-old father to three, and had never committed any kind of offense before. He was given the option of informing on five other people—who would in turn get 25 years in prison—for a reduction to a 10-year sentence. But unable to find anyone to snitch on, Horner ended up eating the 25 years. (For more, the BBC wrote about the case and the use of informants in the U.S.)

There are so many parts of what happened to Horner that are tragic and bad policy, including the futility and the cost of it. Conor Friedersdorf wrote about the cost of incarcerating Horner in an aptly titled blog post “A Heartbreaking Drug Sentence of Staggering Idiocy”:

It costs Florida roughly $19,000 to incarcerate an inmate for a year. So I ask you, dear reader, is keeping non-violent first-time drug offender John Horner locked behind bars in a jumpsuit really the best use of $475,000? For the same price, you could pay a year’s tuition for 75 students at Florida State University. You could pay the salaries of seven West Palm Beach police officers for a year. Is it accurate to call a system that demands the 25-year prison term mad?

A similar thing happened to an 18-year-old honors student named Justin who had a crush on an undercover police officer at his Florida high school (this story was first told on This American Life on February 10, 2013). She asked him if he smoked pot, and even though he didn’t he agreed to get her some. She paid him $25 for it after insisting that he take it.

The often overlooked element of “tough on crime” legislation is that it is extremely expensive to incarcerate people—and often ineffective. What exactly does incarcerating someone like Horner do? He is not a hardened criminal (at least not yet), and likely would not have sold the pain medication to anyone if he hadn’t been enticed into it by someone with the same dubious incentives.

But absent outside action, the system is self-sustaining: someone who has never before committed a crime is tricked into a drug sale carrying a vicious mandatory minimum sentence, and is then told that the way to lessen their sentence is to do exactly what was done to them to someone else. Thus is this great engine of despair provided with more raw material.

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Rhiannon M. Kirkland is an intern at the Washington Monthly.