I Got a Second Chance After Robbing Banks—and Others Should, Too

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After serving a 12 year prison sentence, the author was able to build a meaningful life. Today's irrational laws are robbing young people of that opportunity.

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"Never in my life did I think I'd be sitting in a prison cell, facing life," said Adam Clausen, a federal inmate sentenced at the age of 24 for his role in nine robberies he committed in Philadelphia. "I am not a murderer, a rapist, a terrorist, or an international spy. Yet, I have been sentenced that way, all the same."

A fundamental precept of our federal criminal justice system is the equal application of the laws -- the principle that similar crimes should receive similar punishment. But federal sentencing is more like a series of right angles than parallel lines.

Take my case. When I was 23, the FBI arrested me on federal bank robbery charges. Fortunately, my prosecutor and defense counsel were cordial, and they settled on a deal that allowed me to plead guilty to lesser charges than those the prosecutor could've brought. A federal judge sentenced me to twelve 12 years in prison of imprisonment.

I served my sentence. Today, I'm free, married, raising two young children, attending law school, and volunteering in order to use my second chance in life to give back to the community.

Adam was not so lucky. His federal prosecutor had already made bargains with several of his co-defendants, and he was unwilling to offer Adam a reasonable deal. Adam went to trial, where a jury convicted him of robbery and firearms charges.

Although our crimes were similar, a federal judge sentenced Adam to 213 years of imprisonment; his release date is December 1, 2185.

Adam now spends his days teaching and mentoring other prisoners. And unless there's a miraculous presidential commutation of his sentence, he will die in prison.

In the 1990s, Congress passed several get-tough-on-crime mandatory minimum sentencing bills. One of those laws requires a judge to impose an additional 25-year sentence for anyone convicted of a second or subsequent firearm charge. Without these laws, Adam may have received the same 12-year sentence I did. Instead, mandatory minimums allowed prosecutors to transform a crime that averages a 10-year sentence into life imprisonment.

Congress passed mandatory minimums, in part, because it believed that similar crimes deserved similar punishments. But what Congress failed to consider is the role that federal prosecutors play in charging the accused. Possessing an arsenal of over 4,500 federal criminal statutes, a federal prosecutor can manipulate prison sentences by picking and choosing which crimes to charge, and this charging decision ultimately dictates the prison sentence a judge must impose. In my case, a federal prosecutor, armed with unchecked discretion given by Congress, selected the charges in a way that provided me with a second chance, but Adam's prosecutor came to the opposite conclusion.

The result is actually greater randomness in federal sentencing, not more uniformity, and this is inimical to our sense of justice and common sense. On a fundamental level, the sentence a criminal defendant receives should be determined through even application of sentencing laws, not by the subjective judgments of prosecutors.

As a practical matter, mandatory minimum sentences remove discretion from those most likely to impose just sentences: the federal judiciary. And mandatory minimums almost always increase the amount of time that offenders spend in custody. Just a few months ago, the Justice Department reported that the growing federal prison population imposes costs that are "unsustainable." Indeed, incarcerating Adam instead of affording him a second chance will cost taxpayers approximately $35,000 a year -- equivalent to the annual cost of funding a teenager's college education, but continued over his entire lifetime.

When the development of the law leads to such arbitrary results, we should take it as a sign that the rules need to be rethought. When it comes to federal sentencing laws, the nation needs to act so that reason triumphs over whim and happenstance.

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Shon Hopwood is the author of Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption and a Gates Public Service Law Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law.

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