U.S.: Shocked Over Silk Road Founder's Life Sentence? These Lifers Did Far Less

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Social media erupted in shock and outrage last Friday when federal Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht to Life Without the Possibility of Parole for founding and operating Silk Road’s Bitcoin funded drug market. The bulk of the comments about the verdict ran along the lines of “How can a nonviolent computer person get a life sentence when even murderers don’t serve that long?” Or, “If he was no different than any other drug dealer, why give him life?”

These sentiments offer proof of what the CAN-DO Foundation (Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders), has been saying for years -- the public is woefully ill informed regarding our federal sentencing policy for drug offenders. Even minor players regularly receive life without parole (LWOP) sentences for doing FAR less than what Ulbricht did in running a billion-dollar, anonymous drug black market that made buying illegal drugs almost as easy as making an Amazon.com purchase.

CAN-DO officers, who work to support clemency efforts for prisoners serving LWOP for victimless marijuana-only conspiracy offenses, say that life sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have been going on in the USA for decades and are still a relatively common practice.

Some of the men the CAN-DO Foundation works with had little to no involvement in the actual crime that earned them their life sentences. For instance, Craig Cesal, a first time offender, did nothing more than repair the trucks that had been used to haul marijuana after the smugglers left them abandoned and in disrepair.

Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda was a day laborer tasked with looking after a house where his employer stored marijuana. John Knock, another first time offender, was named in a conspiracy because of his casual acquaintance with one of the co-conspirators over twenty years earlier.

These men and many more like them have spent decades behind bars and are destined to die there unless the President commutes their sentences.

Like Ulbricht, who in addition to his prison sentence was ordered to pay nearly $183 million in forfeitures, these men also lost cars, homes, money and other assets when the courts deemed they should serve life sentences for marijuana.

“Conspiracy laws are the best kept dirty little secret in this nation,” said CAN-DO founder Amy Povah, herself a clemency recipient who served nine years of a 24-year sentence for an MDMA conspiracy, while her husband, the true “kingpin” of the operation, did no prison time and was allowed to keep his assets and bar license. That’s because the conspiracy statue holds one person responsible for the actions of everyone in the group, regardless of how much or how little they actually participated in the activities.

The other thing Povah says causes these egregious sentences is the fact that prosecutors need nothing more than the word of another person, who is usually in desperate circumstances and trying to avoid prison time, to get a conviction.

“The entire system is broken from the ground up,” said Povah, "but in the meantime we are asking the President to do the decent thing and grant these men who have been warehoused away for decades over marijuana, a substance that has now been legalized in four states and is available medicinally in 23, clemency and send them home to their families while they still have a few years left."

The CAN-DO Foundation ( http://www.candoclemency.com/ ) is a 501c3 nonprofit corporation that supports clemency for nonviolent drug offenders, especially women and those serving life sentences for marijuana.