Retired Federal Judge, Law Enforcement, and Leading Drug Reform Organization Ask Court to Reconsider Silk Road’s Ross Ulbricht’s Harsh Prison Sentence

Press Release March 15, 2016
Media Contact

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<p>Tony Newman 646-335-5384<br />
Tamar Todd 510-679-2314</p>

NEW YORK— The Drug Policy Alliance filed an amicus brief today urging the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to reduce the harsh life without parole sentence imposed on Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of operating the Silk Road website.

“We have learned from 40 plus years of the failed war on drugs that incarceration does not prevent drug use or sales,” said Nancy Gertner, Retired Federal Judge and Senior Lecturer at Harvard Law “Even if it did, there is absolutely no evidence that a life sentence, including life without parole, is any more effective at deterring crime than a shorter sentence would be.”

The brief was filed on behalf of the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, JustLeadershipUSA, and Judge Gertner (Ret.). It highlights the growing bipartisan consensus that life sentences do not make sense for drug convictions; that such sentences are disproportionate to what most people receive for drug trafficking offenses; and, given the failure of the war on drugs, harsh sentences do nothing to deter others from committing similar crimes or to reduce drug sales or use. The brief also argues that the trial court improperly relied on a false understanding of the causes of overdose to justify Mr. Ulbricht’s harsh sentence.

On February 4, 2015, Ross Ulbricht was convicted of operating the Silk Road website, on which individuals bought and sold drugs, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mr. Ulbricht was only 26 years old when Silk Road began and had never been in trouble with the law before his arrest in this case. Yet, amici argue, “He received – short of a sentence of death – the harshest punishment our legal system allows.”

“Life without parole sentences are typically reserved for individuals who have committed extremely violent crimes,” said Neill Franklin, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “In this context, Mr. Ulbricht’s sentence is so rare and severe that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Mr. Ulbricht’s draconian sentence flies in the face of evolving standards of decency,” said Jolene Forman, Staff Attorney at the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and lead author of the brief. “Nationally, lawmakers are working across the political aisle to reduce harsh sentences for drug offenses. And, many of our allies in Europe consider life without parole sentences inhumane.”

Amici argue, “After decades of harsh federal sentencing guidelines for drug offenses that have not resulted in positive public policy impacts – such as reduced drug use or drug related activity – and high costs borne by society and individuals, lawmakers are moving to reform harsh sentences for federal drug convictions like Mr. Ulbricht’s.”

In addition to being out of step with public opinion, amici argue that Mr. Ulbricht’s sentence is excessive for a drug conviction. Nationally, sentences for drug trafficking are approximately 5 to 6.3 years. Mr. Ulbricht’s sentence is grossly disproportionate to the sentences others convicted of drug trafficking crimes normally receive across the country.

Amici argue, “Mr. Ulbricht’s life sentence has not deterred activity similar to that for which he was convicted. Because draconian sentences do not – and his sentence in particular will not – deter others from committing similar crimes.”

Since Mr. Ulbricht’s arrest it has been estimated that hundreds of Silk Road copycat websites have been created on the darknet to facilitate illicit drug sales.

Amici also argue that the Court improperly relied on a false understanding of the causes of fatal overdoses as part of its rationale for sentencing Mr. Ulbricht to life without parole.

“It is impossible to demonstrate that the overdose deaths were connected to or primarily caused by drugs purchased on Silk Road,” argue Amici. “[F]atal overdoses are primarily the result of a multitude of complex medical and public policy failings, and not drug use alone or the provision of a drug alone.”

For all of the reasons stated above, amici ask the Second Circuit to vacate Mr. Ulbricht’s sentence and remand him before a different judge for resentencing.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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