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Without a Card to Play, Texas Grandma Sentenced to Life Without Parole for First-Time Drug Offense

Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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May 15, 2012

Texans can sleep more soundly at night knowing that Elisa Castillo, a grandmother and nonviolent first-time drug offender, is serving a life without parole sentence in Fort Worth. Yes, you read that right — the latest casualty of our War on Drugs is a grandmother who never even touched the drugs that sent her to prison. Though she may not look like public enemy No. 1, our persistently illogical criminal justice system has determined that this harsh punishment fits her crime. The truth, though, is that her fate was sealed, in large part because she didn’t have a card to play when negotiating her sentence.

Convicted in a drug-smuggling conspiracy, 56-year-old Castillo maintains that she didn’t know she was being used as a pawn in a cocaine trafficking operation between Mexico and Houston. Given her alleged role as a low-level player in the conspiracy, it makes sense that she was not privy to — and therefore could not provide — any valuable information to federal agents that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of the leaders or other high level members of the alleged conspiracy. Since she was of no help to the government, Castillo received the harshest sentence of the approximately 68 people involved in the scheme, despite being a first-time offender who never saw the drugs she was accused of trafficking.

It is well known that state and federal sentencing schemes allow for reduced punishment when offenders are able to provide information that leads to the prosecution of others. As former federal prosecutor Mark W. White III explained, “Information is a cooperating defendant’s stock in trade, and if you don’t have any…the chances are you won’t get a good deal.” But at what cost are these bargains made? There are clear incentives for law enforcement officials to seek information from criminal suspects when possible. But this system of trading information for reduced time often means that those at the bottom of the chain end up suffering consequences that are disproportionate to their crimes. As such, Castillo was effectively left to die in prison because of what she did not know.

In the past year, the national conversation about the failure of the War on Drugs has grown, but Castillo’s case proves that we have a long way to go in reshaping the unnecessarily punitive sentencing laws that lead to the long-term incarceration of offenders who pose no threat to public safety. In light of the limited resources available to states in the aftermath of the recent fiscal crisis, it is both overly expensive and completely illogical to impose such a draconian and unnecessary sentence on someone who was convicted of playing so small a role in a drug smuggling conspiracy. And yet, within our criminal justice system, it’s par for the course.

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