What’s the reward for peddling a little stress relief? If you’re the wife of a presidential candidate with her hand in the beer trade, it can mean tens of millions of dollars. But if you’re just a guy who peddles the wrong buzz-delivery system, it can be years of hard time.
Hensley & Co. deals in a once-illegal intoxicant that is now enjoyed by millions of Americans. As the third-largest Anheuser-Busch wholesaler in the United States, Hensley & Co. has made company Chairwoman Cindy McCain, Sen. John McCain’s wife, wealthy to the tune of about $100 million.
Gregory Alan Gibson allegedly spent a couple of years transporting shipments of a popular intoxicant around the United States, but not in one of Cindy McCain’s trucks. Instead, he was paid a few grand at a time to drive shipments of an intoxicant that’s still illegal: marijuana.
Cindy McCain may get deluxe quarters in the White House as a partial reward for her efforts. For his trouble, Greg Gibson has already spent years in less-splendid quarters at the Great Plains Correctional Facility, a privately run prison that houses many of Arizona’s convicted lawbreakers far from home in Hinton, Okla. And a life of financial ruin along with the status of a convicted felon awaits him upon his release.
On March 25, 2003, Gibson was sentenced to concurrent prison terms resulting in 10 years behind bars, and fined $150,000 for each of twelve counts, plus surcharges of 60 percent.
Gibson was convicted of illegally conducting an enterprise, conspiracy and 12 counts of transfer for sale, sale or transfer of marijuana.
There’s not a crime against property in the lot — let alone an act of violence.
By contrast, when Clifton Bennett, the 18-year-old son of then Arizona state Senate President Ken Bennett, pleaded guilty in 2006 to assaulting 18 boys, he received a lenient 30 days in jail and three years probation.
Even serious criminals without connections get less severe sentences than Gibson did for transporting marijuana. In May of this year, Jonathan David Alldredge received 41/2 years in prison for shooting a man to death outside a diner in Lake Havasu City.
And Nicholas David Torres was sentenced to 31/2 years in prison plus five years of probation for beating an elderly man with a baseball bat.
Felipe Mazo received one year for killing a woman in a hit-and-run car accident.
The disparity between sentences handed down for crimes of violence and non-violent drug offenses isn’t confined to Gibson’s case. In “Arizona Prison Crisis: A Call for Smart on Crime Solutions,” a report prepared in 2004 for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis point out that Arizona has the highest incarceration rate in the western U.S. and the ninth highest rate in the country.
According to Greene and Pranis, “Arizona’s high incarceration rate is driven by a rigid mandatory sentencing system that severely restricts judges’ discretion in imposing sentences and crowds prisons with non-violent substance abusers.”
A majority of Arizona’s prisoners, they write, are nonviolent offenders, with one in five behind bars for drug offenses.
In fact, say Greene and Pranis, in Arizona “[T]he average sentence imposed for drug sales (4.3 years, including marijuana sales), was longer than the average sentence imposed for assault (four years) or weapons charges (3.8 years) and the same as the average sentence for arson.”
Although a first-time offender, Greg Gibson won’t be eligible for release until 2011. That’s because Arizona’s “truth-in-sentencing” statute mandates that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
Say Greene and Pranis, “Since the law was implemented in 1994, the average time served for non-violent offenses has increased far faster than the time served by violent and other serious person offenders.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1996, Arizona voters passed a ballot initiative mandating that nonviolent drug offenders arrested for simple possession or use of an illegal drug be sent to drug treatment instead of prison for their first and second offenses.
But the measure only applied to use and possession. Once a commercial aspect enters the picture, Draconian sentences are mandatory.
Greg Gibson is no angel. According to prosecutors, he fled custody at one point and tried to bribe the bail bondsman sent to retrieve him.
But if Gibson isn’t an angel, he’s not a devil, either. He didn’t kill anybody, nor did he molest a child, or assault an old man, and it’s hard to see why he should face penalties more harsh than those given to people who did.
It’s hard to justify punishing Greg Gibson at all for dealing in the means to get a buzz when Cindy McCain is rewarded so richly for doing pretty much the same thing — and on a much larger scale.
J.D. Tuccille, of Cornville, Ariz., is the former editor of a popular civil libertarian Web site, and now blogs about civil liberties issues for Examiner.com. His columns have appeared in The Arizona Republic, The Denver Post, The Providence Journal and The Washington Times.