Few will argue that Elisa Castillo -- a 56-year-old grandmother -- is a high-level drug cartel kingpin, but she's spending more time in prison than many who are.
The Houston Chronicle reports that Castillo is serving life in prison without parole for a first-time drug offense.
She maintains she was tricked by a Mexican resident who wanted to start a bus company running trips between Houston and Mexico. The prosecution insists she must have known that the buses were being used to transport drugs because, as the Chronicle explains, significant amounts of money and drugs were repeatedly found on the vehicles.
The Chronicle points out that Castillo is "serving a longer sentence than some of the hemisphere's most notorious crime bosses -- men who had multimillion-dollar prices on their heads before their capture."
Castillo was convicted of conspiracy to smuggle at least a ton of cocaine on tour buses from Mexico to Houston.
When asked whether his client is a threat to society, the attorney handling her appeal, David Bires, told The Huffington Post, "Heck, no. That's just not right"
A blogger on the American Civil Liberties Union site said Castillo got hit with a life sentence "because she didn't have a card to play."
... 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 ...
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas, which prosecuted the case, declined to directly answer questions about whether Castillo deserved her sentence or whether she poses a danger to the public, instead offering this emailed response:
"Ms. Castillo elected to exercise her right and proceed to trial,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson. "After hearing all the evidence as presented from both the government and defense in this case, the jury found her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, the court sentenced her to the applicable term of imprisonment after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines."
But, as Bires points out, those sentencing guidelines are not mandatory and don't have to be followed in every case.
"Here's this grandma who gets hammered with a life sentence," Bires said. "Take your guidelines and stuff them."
ACLU of Texas spokesperson Dotty Griffith told HuffPost that Castillo's life sentence is a prime example of why drug laws need to be changed.
"Castillo's case shows that we have a long way to go to reform drug laws in this country," Griffith wrote in an email. "Long-term incarceration of offenders who pose no threat to public safety does not make our cities or neighborhoods more secure nor does it lower crime rates. That policy does cost taxpayers a lot to build, maintain, staff and run jails; and often lines the pockets of private prison corporations with a stake in putting as many people in jail for as long as possible."
These types of harsh sentences aren't just unnecessary, they're corrosive, according to Griffith. "Over-incarceration ruins lives, tears apart families, renders individuals unemployable and exacts too high a price on our society," Griffith said. "Tough on crime isn’t always smart on crime."