For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the U.S. through Kennedy International Airport in New York City, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors, says the New York Times. To avoid clogging up courts, the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn has allowed couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences. The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.
In recent months, changes in drug sentencing lower punishments for these couriers further. A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all. The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far. Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore. Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment. Judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts. “This is virtually, you know, a slap on the wrist,” said Judge Edward Korman of a Jamaican man who had swallowed 41 pellets of cocaine and was caught at Kennedy. “I don't even know why they bothered to prosecute.”