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As Drug Sentencing Debate Rages, 'Ridiculous' Sentences Persist

Image: Leo Guthmiller poses for a portrait outside his apartment in Lincoln

Leo Guthmiller outside his apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska, the day before he turned himself in at a federal prison to start a 10-year drug sentence. Andrew Dickinson / for NBC News

When he was an addict and petty criminal, Leo Guthmiller knew little, and cared less, about the federal government's harsh drug sentencing laws. The worst he'd endured was 90 days at the county lockup in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Then, last April, nearly two years after he'd stopped popping painkillers and smoking methamphetamine, Guthmiller was arrested by two federal agents as he headed for a drug counseling session. He later learned why: an addict and his girlfriend, facing stiff prison sentences, had told investigators that Guthmiller had introduced them to his meth dealer around the time he was getting sober. That made him the middleman in a street-level drug distribution scheme.

Because this was a federal case, and the amount of meth exceeded 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds, Guthmiller was suddenly facing at least 10 years behind bars as a co-conspirator.

"I was thoroughly confused," Guthmiller, 28, recalled. "It was devastating."

The charge thrust him, unwittingly, into a raging debate over a pillar of America's war on drugs: mandatory-minimum sentences. Intended to sideline high-level traffickers, the laws have been used to sweep thousands of nonviolent, small-time offenders into epic prison terms.

A reformed addict prepares for the next decade behind bars 3:44

This unanticipated consequence has spawned a bipartisan movement in Washington to reform the system, and motivated President Obama to offer early freedom to hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders.

But thousands more arrive in prison every year.

This is the story of one of those thousands.

An 'absolutely ridiculous' sentence

Guthmiller didn't dispute the couple's accusation. But he bristled at the government's portrayal of him as a scheming operative. Besides, he was a changed man: sober, working, studying for his GED, leading AA meetings, completing a drug court program, newly married. Still, he pleaded guilty, unwilling to risk a trial that could end in an even longer prison term.

"I'm not an innocent person, but at the same time this is all a bit much, I feel," Guthmiller told NBC News.

At his sentencing in mid-February, U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard agreed. He praised Guthmiller's turnaround, but said federal drug statutes gave him no choice. He called the case "Exhibit A" on why Congress needed to pass The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would give judges more flexibility.

"A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in a case like this is absolutely ridiculous," Gerrard said from the bench. "And the only reason I am imposing the sentence that I am imposing today is because I have to."

In a show of confidence, Gerrard gave Guthmiller 11 weeks to close out his new life before heading to prison.

The judge's remarks caught the attention of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. As he prepared to spend the next decade behind bars, Guthmiller found himself cast as a case study in America's unforgiving drug laws.

Image: Leo Guthmiller eats lunch the day before he surrenders
Leo Guthmiller eating lunch at an IHOP in Lincoln, Nebraska, on his last full day of freedom. Andrew Dickinson / for NBC News

"The whole idea is these 10-year sentences were written by Congress to go after serious drug offenders, and they're being applied to a guy who is home and is going to drive himself to prison," said Kevin Ring, the group's vice president. "He obviously isn't this major criminal that everyone should be so scared of."

Searching for fixes

This is a key point in the drug-law reform effort, which has inspired an unlikely alliance among Democrats and Republicans, many of whom gathered at the White House last week to discuss their campaign.

Mandatory minimum sentences, toughened during 1980s crime panics, established criteria under which judges had to impose lengthy prison terms for drug trafficking. The penalties depended on the type of drug, the amount of it, the offender's criminal history and the nature of the crime — including whether the offense involved violence, weapons or children. The new laws triggered an explosion in the U.S. prison population, contributing to a dramatic decline in crime rates but also costing taxpayers millions.

That cost-benefit balance has since tipped. Researchers now say that mass incarceration's impact on the crime rate has ebbed. Studies show that the likelihood of punishment, rather than the length of a prison sentence, is more likely to deter criminals. And there are now millions of nonviolent ex-offenders — a disproportionate number of whom are black — unable to contribute to the economy, including many who return to crime. Reformers argue that the money America spends on prisons would be better used for cops, schools and alternatives to jail, such as probation and drug courts.

In a 2011 report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimums focused too heavily on the amount of drugs and not enough on the offender's role in the trafficking operation. The commission has since loosened some of its guidelines retroactively, allowing thousands of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders to leave prison early. President Barack Obama joined the effort by granting clemency to many others.

Those moves are considered Band-Aids compared to the larger fix offered by the Sentencing Reform Act, legislation that would allow judges to impose shorter prison terms for bit players. But the bipartisan bill is bogged down by election-year politics.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, has tried to change the system from within, ordering federal prosecutors to focus on high-level dealers. It appears to be working: the number of mandatory-minimum cases has dropped to 45 percent of all federal drug cases, down from 66.8 percent in 2007.

John Higgins, chief of the narcotics unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nebraska, said in a statement that his prosecutors followed the Justice Department's advice, seeking mandatory minimums "only in those cases that warrant it." That included Guthmiller's, he said. He declined to go into detail, but pointed to court hearings in which prosecutors alleged that Guthmiller's 2013 matchmaking between the dealer and the couple led to the sale of 15-pounds of meth. "Methamphetamine is the number one drug threat in Nebraska," Higgins said.

A twisting recovery

After being sentenced, Guthmiller entered a kind of purgatory, unsure of what to make of his new role as a drug-reform poster boy, or how it fit into his twisting life story.

Trim and muscular, with a blond buzz cut and active brown eyes, Guthmiller traced his descent into addiction to his early childhood, when his mother — an addict herself — gave him Xanax. That led to alcohol and pot and, after he was hit by a car at 16, a dependence on painkillers. He dropped out of school, lived in group homes, worked odd jobs and racked up a string of arrests typical of an addict: theft, shoplifting, violating a protection order, court absences. A guard at a drugstore where he was caught pocketing merchandise accused him of assault, his only record of violence, but the charge was dropped.

Finally, while living in a halfway house, he was introduced to the drug court program, and resolved to get clean. He marks the start of his sobriety at June 20, 2013.

His federal indictment came 10 months later. It got him kicked out of drug court. But he continued on his new path, savoring a quiet 9-to-5 routine, that had once seemed untenable. Just before his sentencing, he and his girlfriend wed.

"I love coming home in the quiet and waiting for her to get home, to cook dinner, to watch the (NBA) playoffs," he said.

Final days of freedom

As his April 27 surrender date approached, Guthmiller, brooding and contrite, became prone to sudden bursts of tears. He resigned from his job at the Family Thrift Center, where his coworkers sent him off with a cake. He handed his AA meeting to another leader. He researched his future home, the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. He pondered the irony of trying to keep improving himself while locked up.

"I feel like I definitely have more use out here with my AA meetings and working and my family and all that kind of stuff than I ever will in a prison," he said.

He and his wife visited as many restaurants in Lincoln as they could, devouring belly-busting plates of Chinese food, cheesesteaks, enchiladas, pancakes. He watched TV and played video games in their living room, furnished in Nebraska Cornhuskers scarlet. He visited his sisters and mother.

Image: Leo Guthmiller says goodbye to his mom
Leo Guthmiller says goodbye to his mom, Coney Guthmiller, in Utica, Nebraska, on April 24, 2016. This was his last trip to see her before self-surrendering for his ten-year prison sentence in Springfield, Mo., about a seven-hour drive away. Andrew Dickinson / for NBC News

"You've got a good wife there, but it's sad to me that you won't have kids until you're 40 years old," his mother told him, weeping. "And you deserve them more than anybody deserves family."

He refused to say goodbye to anyone, insisting that he'd see them all again.

"It doesn't scare me as it first did," Guthmiller said a week before his surrender. "I see all the support and family and friends and it makes me realize how lucky I am, despite the fact I'm going to prison for 10 years. I hold onto hope that change is coming, and all I can do is stay positive."

Guthmiller and his wife spent his final night of freedom on a mattress in their living room, rising before dawn to prepare for the six-hour drive south. He slouched on a sofa and watched her in the doorway — a final snapshot memory.

In early morning, they held each other in a long embrace and waited for a cousin to join them.

"I never thought I'd worry about being late to prison, but here I am," he said, forcing a laugh.

He rubbed a hand over his head.

"The whole thing's nuts," he said. "It doesn't feel real yet."

He stepped outside. An overnight thunderstorm had passed, and sharp gusts of wind whipped through their apartment complex. Guthmiller, in a zip-up hoodie, shivered and smoked cigarettes.

The cousin arrived just before 6 a.m., as the sky began to brighten. They checked directions, and Guthmiller noted wryly that the prison's address was on Sunshine Street.

He slid in to the car's passenger seat. They pulled away, out of the parking lot and down an empty street toward Highway 2, which led them out of the city.