The Courier Conundrum: The High Costs of Prosecuting Low-Level Drug Couriers and What We Can Do About Them
By Adam B. Weber
Since the United States declared its “War on Drugs,” federal enforcement of drug-trafficking crimes has led to increased incarceration and longer prison sentences. Many low-level drug couriers and drug mules have suffered disproportionately from these policies; they face mandatory punishments that vastly exceed their culpability. Drug couriers often lack substantial ties to drug-trafficking organizations, which generally recruit vulnerable individuals to act as couriers and mules. By using either threats of violence or promises of relatively small sums of money, these organizations convince recruits to overlook the substantial risks that drug couriers face.
The current policies of pursuing harsh punishments for low-level couriers generate significant societal costs. These costs include not only monetary costs but also collateral damage imposed on both the couriers and innocent third parties. Further, these harsh policies fail to generate appreciable benefits or satisfy the goals of either retributive or utilitarian theories of punishment. This Note proposes a legislative amendment to the current importation statute that would create a carveout under which low-level drug couriers could be charged under a separate misdemeanor statute. The proposal lays out a number of criteria that drafters could use to identify lowlevel participants and exempt them from the stiff mandatory minimum sentences and the long-term consequences that accompany a felony drug conviction.