- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - After nearly three years of trying to overcome a lifetime of drug abuse, a Lincoln man will report to prison Wednesday to serve a mandatory 10-year sentence that even a federal judge has called “absolutely ridiculous.”

Advocates for reforming the nation’s system of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes argue that Leo Guthmiller’s case is an example of why Congress needs to make changes.

Guthmiller would seem to be a prime candidate for the U.S. Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative launched three years ago that instructs federal prosecutors to decline pursuing charges that trigger mandatory minimum sentences for defendants who are not organizers, leaders, managers or supervising others in the drug trade. The 28-year-old pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell illegal drugs, and prosecutors say Guthmiller connected users to people who sold 15 pounds of methamphetamine over several months.

“I take responsibility for the things I did,” said Guthmiller, who will be in federal prison in Springfield, Missouri. “I just don’t think it should cost you 10 years of your life for being an addict.”

Federal prosecutors cited Guthmiller’s criminal history - which public defenders and an advocacy group argued were nonviolent misdemeanors or infractions stemming from his drug addiction - in seeking the minimum-sentence count.

“In this case, as in all cases, we follow the district-specific guidelines we developed as part of the department’s Smart on Crime initiative, to ensure that our prosecutors use their discretion to charge mandatory minimums in only those cases that warrant it,” John Higgins, the narcotics enforcement unit chief for the Nebraska U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a written statement.

Guthmiller said his addiction began when his mother starting feeding him painkillers and other drugs when he was 8 as a way to keep a rambunctious boy quiet.

“Drugs were always just a part of my life,” he said. “I didn’t feel victimized or anything. That was just normal to me.”

By the time he was 18, he was an addict, shoplifting items to feed his habit and spending time in jail for petty crimes. The cumulative result of years of minor crimes came in 2013, when charges of shoplifting and possession of a small amount of meth turned into a felony.

His break came when he was placed into a halfway house and a drug treatment program, where he stayed clean for a year, and then participated in a drug court program. He thrived under the rehabilitation regimen, successfully completing several drug, alcohol and behavior-modification treatment programs and eventually leading his own Alcoholics Anonymous group.

“It was my new life, and I loved it,” Guthmiller said. “It was the life I always wanted.”

He had been clean for nearly two years when the federal indictment came in 2015. He pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge and the 10-year minimum to avoid a harsher sentence. Drug treatment counselors, his boss and even state probation officers wrote glowing letters extolling his virtues.

U.S. District Judge John Gerrard made note of Guthmiller’s progress and blasted the law that demanded a 10-year sentence and called for Congress to pass sentencing reforms.

“A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in a case like this is absolutely ridiculous,” Gerrard said. “And the only reason I’m imposing the sentence … is because I have to.”

Families Against Mandatory Minimums Vice President Kevin Ring said Guthmiller’s case highlights the need for sentencing laws to be changed.

“This isn’t some abstract thing,” Ring said. “Not everybody is a monster. These are real, three-dimensional people who made mistakes, who deserve to be punished, but they don’t need the sentences that they’re being laden with.”

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