Why Low-Level Offenders Can Get Longer Sentences Than Airplane Hijackers

Marion Hungerford has a severe form of borderline personality disorder that led to her numerous suicide attempts. As her mental state deteriorated, her husband of 26 years left her. Alone and unable to support herself, she began a relationship with a man whom she helped to commit a string of armed robberies. She never even touched the gun the man used for the robbery. Even though this was her first offense, Hungerford was sentenced to 159 years in federal prison.

Her case tells us everything we need to know about a set of harsh sentencing laws, particularly one known as “924(c),” that prosecutors use to swell prison populations and perpetuate injustice. There are already too many stories like hers, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ charging and enforcement policies — which roll back the previous administration’s more enlightened approach — will only worsen the problem and fuel mass incarceration across the nation.

The details of Hungerford’s case do not match her over-a-century sentence. She “took no active part other than driving [the man] to or from the scene of the crime or casing the stores that [he] later robbed,” as one of the judges who reviewed her case explained. Together, they stole fewer than $10,000. No one was injured during the crime. The man turned on Hungerford in exchange for leniency in his sentencing — he got 32 years. At trial, a psychiatrist testified that she had a “very low capacity to assess reality” and “low level of intellectual functioning.”

Revealingly, people who commit much more serious crimes can receive a lighter sentence. As the First Circuit Court of Appeals has explained, “[u]nder federal law, ‘an aircraft hijacker . . . , a terrorist who detonates a bomb in a public place . . . , a racist who attacks a minority with the intent to kill and inflicts permanent or life threatening injuries . . . , a second-degree murderer, [and] a rapist,’ …  would all be subject to less harsh sentences than” Hungerford.  

These harsh sentences for low-level offenses are possible because of a little-known law that must be named and changed so we can build a smarter and more equitable criminal justice system.

The legal code in question, 18 U.S.C. 924(c), functions as an add-on charge that federal prosecutors can use at their discretion to massively increase the sentence for a crime of violence or for a drug crime. If a prosecutor charges a defendant with three counts of a drug crime and the judge sentences them to five years on each count, those three five-year terms would typically be served concurrently, not consecutively. So the actual time served would be five years. But, if the defendant possessed a firearm in the commission of that crime or conspired with someone else who possessed a firearm during those drug crimes, the prosecutor can charge three corresponding counts under 924(c).

Under that law, the total sentence balloons to a whopping 60 years. That’s five years for the first 924(c) conviction and 25 years each for the second and third convictions, all of which have to be served consecutively to the drug sentences and consecutively to each other. These “stacked” 924(c) charges account for how a first-time offender who never touches a gun or drugs and never injures or threatens anyone can get a sentence of over one hundred years in prison — a “forever sentence.” 

And prosecutors can bring these charges even if the gun was unloaded or broken. Even worse, because 924(c) carries mandatory minimum sentences, it is prosecutors, not judges, who get to decide whether a defendant receives a forever sentence. If the prosecutor charges a defendant with 924(c) counts and that person is convicted, the judge’s hands are tied. That judge is forced to sentence the defendant to die in prison, even if the judge believes it’s not a fair sentence.

Indeed, the judge in Hungerford’s case wanted to sentence her to seven years, but couldn’t because of the 924(c) convictions. In an exceedingly rare turn of events, Hungerford eventually benefited from prosecutorial discretion after she was victimized by it. When a new prosecutor looked at her case, he recognized the egregious injustice that had been done and consented to an extraordinary settlement to reduce her sentence to the seven years the judge thought was appropriate. Those are the kinds of prosecutors we need more of.

Instead, we have Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing federal prosecutors to bring the harshest possible cases against defendants and specifically to focus on low-level gun offenders. Importantly, there are ways prosecutors can hold people accountable for possessing a gun during the commission of a crime without triggering these wildly disproportionate sentences in cases where they are not justified.

For example, they can seek an enhanced sentence through the federal sentencing guidelines. Unlike mandatory minimum sentences, under which judges essentially lose their authority, these guidelines are just a starting benchmark for judges and allow them to craft what they believe is a fair sentence given the specific facts in each individual case.  

The Eighth Amendment, which is supposed to protect us against cruel and unusual punishment, should serve as a check when prosecutors forget that their job is to do justice, not needlessly lock people up for decades and decades. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has eviscerated the Eighth Amendment. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of this constitutional right prevents lower federal courts from invalidating “grossly disproportionate” sentences like the ones described here.

Put in simple terms, the court is getting it wrong.

Tellingly, every judge on the First Circuit Court of Appeals recently concurred in an order imploring the Supreme Court to reconsider the “nearly three-decades old” decision that required them “to uphold” a 924(c) “greater-than-life sentence.” The precedent, as it stands, requires judges to impose and uphold sentences that they believe are “barbaric.”

Congress could address part of the problem by passing S.1917, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Among other reforms, this legislation would amend section 924(c) so that prosecutors cannot stack multiple charges in a single case for a first-time offender. These changes in federal law would result in fewer people being subjected to overly harsh mandatory minimums sentences that are unjust and unnecessary for public safety.  

We must fight against extreme mandatory minimum sentences as well as prosecutors who support and use them, including Jeff Sessions. Until prosecutors abandon this tool, Congress changes the law, or the Supreme Court gives us an Eighth Amendment that lives up to its worthy promise, we will only see more “forever sentences” for low-level offenders.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

Don't they have to do something with all the jails Clinton built ?


Financial crimes have devastated the lives of thousands in a single stroke. Enron executives should have done 20 million years. People are still waking up every day with no pension and suffering because of what they did 20 years ago. I'm sure being robbed at gunpoint is difficult, but how many unharmed armed robbery victims are still suffering palpable, daily trauma decades later? I've been robbed twice and I hardly ever thought it about afterwards.

Frankly the US legal system is a terrible theory anyway. People are so impossibly biased that a 'jury of your peers' is just 12 people who you hope are crazy in your favor. Imagine being a black kid with a Sean Hannity-watching formean and a thuggy coalition of trump voters running roughshod over everyone more considered. People eventually just give up so they can go home. We need professional jurors, like Europe.


You started off with a sensible reply but totally crashed and burned at the end. Obviously you hate conservatives, Sean Hannity and Donald Trump and more obvious is that you do not know a darn thing about them or what they stand for. Like so many confused and mentally lazy socialist idealists, you bathe yourself in generalities and falsehood without ever once looking at things with an open mind.

The U.S. legal system and sentencing guidelines desperately need congressional action to stop persecuting non violent minor criminals by giving them long and harsh sentences. Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein both need to be fired and replaced yesterday, but since we have a do nothing Democrat legislature combined with Republican never Trumpers, NOTHING WILL BE DONE UNLESS a Republican clean majority loyal to the President wins both houses. Federal prisons are overcrowded and it costs more than $30,000 per year to feed, cloth and house all these inmates. Reducing sentences and improving job training for non violent inmates would save billions of dollars over the long term. Donald Trump and MANY Republican Congressmen and Senators would strongly back such a move. No matter how good Republican sponsored legislation is, the Democrats would vote against it because good things from a Republican controlled administration keeps them out of power.


It is obvious that Sessions wants more people in prison because he owns the prisons.


Many of the large banks invested in GEO group. They like inmates with SMI, ( serious mental illnesses), so they can transfer them to the mental hospital they bought I'd some states. the inmates that get SMI status, can easily be transfered from the prisons, and consequently have "Forever inmates", in the mental health hospitals linked to private prisons.


Let me see if I get this straight. A woman knowing helps a man commit a series of armed robberies. She is a willing accomplice . She committed multiple robberies, not just one. Sorry, the sentence was correct.
Oh, and maybe we should make sure that people who are convicted of serious crimes are sentenced to longer terms. Not help other criminals get out of jail early


First of all, she wasn't 100% aware of what was going on due to having mental issues. If she were able to understand what she was doing, I doubt she would have done. He targeted a poor woman who didn't know any better. Yes, in some cases the accomplice should get a long case and the person with the weapon should get even longer. It seems that you don't understand that this woman wasn't completely there. I agree that criminals who speak up about others shouldn't get shorter sentences. But she wasn't the one who even held the gun so she did no real harm.


Easy solution. Don't commit crimes. But if you do commit crimes, rest easy, the Anti-American Criminal Liberties Union is there to help.

No name

I am familiar with Marion's case as I am close to the family of the male involved. Sadly I believe our justice system missed with her, 159 years for being a get away driver and spending money is not fair. He will be released with less than 25 years because he took a deal, she could have got a better deal with cooperation. I believe the time she spent in prison was more than enough.


I dont think it's fair that very first time affenders gets 7 to 10 years on first time drug charges.my husband has never been in trouble with the law at all he is 33 and he lost his job I have health problems and we just got down on our luck we didnt have money to pay the Bill's we didnt have any food in the house four months and so he did what he thought would be a easy way to make money a friend told him about this job they can do and it was easy simple money but the guy turned around and turned my husband in and he got all the charges and got 7 to 10 years for his first charge ever and the other guy didnt get any charges all he got was in trouble for old charges and he is a repeat affender and he got less time then my husband and my husband has never had a charge never been in trouble always was a good citizen always paid his taxes always worked for what we have never done anything wrong in the past 33 years and he makes one mistake and gets 7 to 10 ..I think it's so unfair that it takes one person to take u away from everything u love and be able to judge you without knowing u and knowing what good of a person u are I dont think it's fair that that person gets to decide weather we get to go home to or family or not..its not fair for someone we dont kniw never met be able to take our life away like that..I think if we ain't hurting no one or killing no one or robbing or kidnapping I think we shouldnt get time for something that we are doing to ourselves I dont think it's right to put them in prison that long it dosent help them in the long run if they get out and want to do drugs again they are going to all the state in doing is holding a bed up for murder of a kidnapper or a kid rapper and it pisses me off stop wasting a room and a bed on someonenwhinhas never been in trouble and get some one who has a long past and history that needs to be in there not someone who was just trying to support his family and keep u above water ..let them first time affenders out and watch how fast u wont see them again .


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