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Judge sentences woman to finish a law degree: ‘This was a life lesson’

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When considering the sentence for a drug conspiracy charge last month, Chief U.S. District Judge Randy Crane had options.

The typical sentence for conspiracy to distribute narcotics is up to five years in prison, he said. But for Chelsea Madill, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine in August 2019, Crane decided to take a different route.

The Southern District Court of Texas chief judge sentenced Madill to three years of supervised release and one special condition — she must finish her law degree.

“I think this was a life lesson for her,” Crane told The Washington Post. “And she’ll be a lawyer that really contributes to our society.”

A rare move in criminal sentencing, the condition follows a nationwide push to grant reduced sentences for certain drug offenses.

Madill could not be reached for comment. Her attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

She was arrested in January 2019 after federal agents alleged she’d used companies registered under her name to coordinate the movement of cocaine from Texas to other locations in the United States, a criminal complaint states. An informant told federal agents that Madill was working with a drug-trafficking organization that had been under investigation since 2008 and was believed to have been operating in Mexico, Texas and northern cities in the United States, the complaint says.

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In May 2018, DEA agents and members of the Texas Department of Public Safety were surveilling a warehouse in McAllen, Tex., where Madill was allegedly seen speaking to the driver of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck was pulled over after leaving the warehouse and law enforcement officers found about 62 pounds of vacuum-sealed cocaine inside, the complaint states.

Phone records later tied Madill to members of the trafficking organization, the complaint alleged. Investigators also alleged she got the Texas warehouse in March 2018 under her company name: Monsters Inc. Logistics.

According to the complaint, drug shipments for the trafficking organization were made from the McAllen warehouse and were received by another company Madill owned in Illinois.

Madill was arrested in January 2019, about eight months after investigators say she flew to Mexico and met with the leader of the drug-trafficking organization, court records state. She pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge on Aug. 2, 2019.

After her plea, Madill enrolled in law school, Crane said. He learned from Madill and her public defender that her legal aspirations were borne out of trying to secure an attorney during the case.

“When she was indicted on this case, she could not find a lawyer that she could afford, that they were all quoting her large sums — I want to say like $50,000 and up — to represent her,” Crane said. “And so she couldn’t afford counsel, and this motivated her to try and become a lawyer.”

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Between 2019 and 2022, Madill’s sentencing hearings were reset multiple times, some because of the pandemic and others to allow her to provide documents from her Florida law school, including letters from the dean and faculty, and copies of her transcript, Crane said.

Madill being “already well into law school” was a primary reason her attorney advocated for a sentence without prison time, Crane said. In turn, he decided to codify it in her sentence.

“And she was in agreement with that,” Crane said. “She said, ‘No, I’m going to finish, you can make that a requirement.’”

Prosecutors did not object to the terms of Madill’s sentence, said Angela Dodge, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Texas.

Drug crime sentences that reduce or eliminate prison time started taking off with the drug-court movements in the 1990s, when the criminal justice system was overloaded with cases, said Heather Schoenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Boston University.

During that time, sentences required treatment programs in lieu of incarceration. It led to greater use of alternative sentences beyond drug cases over the following years, Schoenfeld said.

It was “all responding to this idea that incarceration was clearly not the right response for everyone who had been charged with a crime or even convicted and judges searching for other things that they could do,” she said.

At the sentencing hearing Jan. 9, Crane said Madill made it clear her goal was to “help people that were in her situation.”

“I hope she’s successful in her legal career,” Crane said. “And that I don’t ever see her again in my court.”