John Horner had no record of drug-dealing when he was sentenced to a 25-year mandatory minimum prison term for selling some of his own pain pills to an undercover informant who befriended him and told him he could not afford both his rent and his prescription medication. Horner, a fast-food restaurant worker and a father, had been prescribed the pain medication because of an injury in which he lost an eye, according to a BBC report.
If, as expected, he serves all 25 years, Horner will be 72 when he is released, and he will have spent more time in prison than the former Enron CEO who was convicted in one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in modern history. Last week, the Department of Justice said it is considering a deal to shorten Jeffrey Skilling’s sentence. But even if he serves every year, Skilling will still have fared better than Horner with a sentence of 24 years.
Horner’s punishment is, as Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic writes, a “heartbreaking drug sentence of staggering idiocy” and arguably a case of entrapment by police. But setting that aside, it’s not just our draconian drug laws that lead to such perverse sentencing. Even in 2006, when Skilling was first sentenced, his legal defense was deemed one of the most expensive in history at $65 million, and in the years since he has taken his case to the Supreme Court and back on appeal after appeal. Horner, on the other hand, had a court-appointed public defender and was persuaded to forgo trial entirely in favor of a plea deal. He was told he could mitigate his sentence by serving as an informant. But because Horner is not a professional drug dealer and has no connections to the drug trade, he couldn’t make any prosecutable cases against others. As a consequence, he will serve more time than kingpins who take down their friends in exchange for freedom. And why was Horner snagged in the first place? Because another guy trying to reduce his sentence had to implicate somebody else to shorten his own sentence in Florida’s perverse informant system.
This is the vicious cycle of harsh sentencing laws, snitching, and overburdened public defenders that ensnares low-level offenders with sentences intended for kingpins. Clarence Aaron is serving a triple life sentence for introducing two drug dealers to one another at a profit of $1,500. Fellow defendants who snitched on him received seven years, 12 years. Rachel Hoffman lost her life in a sting operation she participated in to reduce her five-year sentence for possession of marijuana and ecstasy.
And then there’s Skilling, with whom the Justice Department is likely entertaining settlement and a shorter sentence because it would put an end to continued costly litigation by his arsenal of lawyers. It is worth noting that, a decade ago, corporate criminals typically received significantly lighter sentences of just a few years to a few months. Corporate crime sentences, like those in drug crimes, are made more stringent by harsh federal sentencing guidelines that have been criticized by federal judges. And in a society addicted to mass incarceration, it is arguably not the best use of resources to house either Skilling or Horner in prison for a quarter century, nor the best way to rehabilitate these entirely nonviolent offenders. But whether it be prison or some other remedy, the American system of justice measures punishment by its proportionality to the crime. And by that standard, there is no explaining the juxtaposition of these two sentences.