Bogota: When Australian Cassandra Sainsbury was detained in April, at age 22, it looked almost certain that she would be spending a very long time in a Colombian jail.
The South Australian was detained with 5.8 kilograms of cocaine in her luggage at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota as she prepared to leave the country.
Under the Colombian penal code, more than five kilograms means a maximum sentence of 30 years, but instead, it is likely she will be free before her 30th birthday.
"She has been very lucky," Sainsbury's lawyer Orlando Herran said outside court on Wednesday, local time.
So how did she manage such a reduced sentence? Media were barred from the sentencing hearing, but Mr Herran spoke to reporters about what the judge had said.
Just a cog
???Mr Herran said one key fact was that Sainsbury was seen as a "small fish". Sainsbury's legal team has long maintained she was a pawn in a well-organised, international drug syndicate and it appeared that the judge concurred. They said she carried the drugs because she had received threats from others.
"The judge decided that her responsibility was in omission. She neglected to tell the authorities about the threats. But she was a young person in a bad financial situation. This has led to the reduced sentence," Mr Herran said.
Earlier in the year, Fairfax Media spoke to Luis Cruz, a drug policy researcher at Dejusticia, a Bogota-based NGO dedicated to law reform in Colombia who said authorities were keen to catch drug mules.
"The drug policy of Colombia has been focused on criminalising the lower levels of the cartels - 74 per cent of the people in prison for drugs are these small fish," Mr Cruz said.
Herran said that even in the most dire of crimes, like homicide, the maximum sentence is rarely applied in Colombia.
"The state can't care for someone for decades and decades," he said. "The judge wants the least number of people in prison, if possible."
Despite several investment programs designed to increase capacity, Colombia's prisons have gone from 10 per cent over capacity in 1995 to more than 56 per cent last year, according to a report from think-tank Insight Crime last year.
Another major contributor to overcrowding is the overuse of pre-trial detention, with more than a third of the prisoner population at any point just awaiting trial.
Sending a message to Australians
The Colombian media and public in general have been largely unaware of Sainsbury's case. As such, an extreme punishment may not have had a deterrent effect on their population.
However, Herran said the judge wanted to send a message back to Australia.
"Other Australians could be tricked or threatened by these networks, especially if they are ignorant of the law. Colombian law enforcement is effective and efficient."