Measuring Justice Served

By · Thursday, March 19th, 2009

As a 45-year-old man, I am coming to that fulcrum where I will have lived more of my life in prison than I lived in society. Truthfully, it feels to me as if I’ve always been in prison. I was 23 when my sentence began. The experiences I had prior to my confinement feel abstract, as if they were part of someone else’s life. Sometimes it’s hard for me to comprehend the reasons why I am in prison.

Prior to my receiving the lengthy sentence for trafficking in cocaine, I sat with a probation officer for my presentence investigation. He interviewed me for several hours, then spoke with family members, friends, and others who could provide him with a sense of who I was as a young man. The purpose of the PSI was to help the judge as he deliberated over the appropriate sentence. As I recall, my probation officer recommended a term of 15 years.

Had I pleaded guilty to my crimes and accepted responsibility for the role I had in distributing cocaine, I likely would have received a sentence that would have kept me in prison for no longer than 10 years. As a first-time prisoner without a history of weapons or violence, I may have served even less than 10 years.

But I made different choices, and the consequences of my defiance in my early 20s have resulted in my serving much more time in prison. As Eddie, a criminal justice student stated in his comment, one theory for imposing long sentences on young offenders was that they would age out of crime. I suppose there is some truth that as a man matures, he develops a sense of values that makes him less likely to engage in crime than a younger man.

At the same time, when society locks a man in prison for decades at a time, that man becomes institutionalized. In other words, he becomes so immersed in the abnormal ways of the prison culture that when he concludes his sentence, the individual finds himself incapable of functioning in modern society. We can see these results in the high recidivism rates that numerous media outlets report.

Rather than measuring justice by the turning of calendar pages, I feel convinced that we need prison reforms that measure justice served by the objective efforts an offender makes to redeem his actions and to reconcile with society.

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