A Heartbreaking Drug Sentence of Staggering Idiocy

A first-time narcotics offender, father to three, sold pain pills to a friend. His punishment: 25 years in prison. It's just the latest evidence that U.S. drug policy is madness.
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John Horner, a 46-year-old fast-food restaurant worker, lost his eye in a 2000 accident and was prescribed painkillers. Years later, he met and befriended a guy who seemed to be in pain himself. His new friend asked if he could buy some of Horner's pain pills. Naturally, the friend was a police informant. Prosecutors in Central Florida say Horner was ultimately paid $1,800 for pills. "My public defender told me, 'They got you dead to rights,'" he said. "So I thought, 'OK, I guess there's no need taking this to trial.'" His story is recounted in a BBC News Service story about the problematic use of informants by U.S. law-enforcement agencies.


It's an important subject and the article tackles it well.

But let's focus here on the anecdote about Horner, because it gets at the utter madness of the War on Drugs. For the sake of argument, let's presume he's guilty of selling $1,800 of pain pills prescribed to him for an injury. Forget that he was arguably entrapped. Just look at the crime in isolation.

What sort of punishment should it carry?

You've got a 46-year-old employed father caught selling four bottles of prescription pain pills. "Under Florida law Horner now faced a minimum sentence of 25 years, if found guilty," the BBC reports.

Twenty-five years minimum!

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?

Well. Prosecutors offered to shave years off his sentence if he became an informant himself and successfully helped send five others to prison on 25 year terms. He tried. But "Horner failed to make cases against drug traffickers," says the BBC. "As a result, he was sentenced to the full 25 years in October last year and is now serving his sentence in Liberty Correctional Institution."

Naturally.

"He will be 72 by the time he is released."

Meet his kids:

john horner's kids.png
How about a pardon, Governor Rick Scott?

Oh.

Update: I've unearthed a fact that goes unmentioned in other coverage of Horner's case -- while it is true that he was a first time narcotics offender, he was convicted many years earlier (at age 18) of statutory rape. He served one to two years, and while I don't have more information than that at the moment, his wife says, via an intermediary, that it was a case of consensual sex among teens. While inconvenient for his already slim chances at being pardoned and worth adding to the BBC piece, it should be noted that it neither bears on mandatory minimums in Florida ("there's no indication that any priors were relevant at all in the sentencing phase of this case," says Gregory Newburn of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group), nor does it change the fact that spending $475,000 to keep him behind bars is a truly mad way to allocate public funds.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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