SXSW Panel Takes Aim at Sentencing Reform

March 20, 2017 by

In an incredibly diverse criminal justice reform panel at SXSW, unlikely allies came together to discuss past measures, necessary reforms, and the current state of the incarcerated in America.

On the aptly titled panel Artist to Advocate, Snoop Dogg and Weldon Angelos were joined by Senior Vice President of Koch Industries, Mark Holden; all moderated by Vikrant Reddy, a Senior Fellow at the Koch Institute.

While the panel addressed everything from marijuana decriminalization to increasing workplace re-entry opportunities, most of the discussion revolved around mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements.

In 2002, Angelos, ex-offender turned activist, became a victim of these two Clinton-era provisions.

“The police caught wind, they set up three stings buying about a thousand dollars’ worth of marijuana from Angelos. During the deals police say Angelos had a gun in his possession, a critical detail that makes this case so extreme,” said a local news report covering the arrest.

“The way the prosecutor designed my indictment, it triggered a 55-year mandatory sentence,” said Angelos. The sentencing judge called the penalty, “cruel, unjust, and irrational.”

Drug sales triggered the three-strike provision, and Angelos carrying – although never brandishing – a weapon was used to enhance the sentence.

To put the absurdity of Angelos’ sentence into perspective, Mark Holden drew comparisons to aircraft hijackers who only receive 24 years in prison, and terrorists who get 20:

“…if law enforcement was worried about public safety because he had a gun on, they probably should’ve arrested him the first time, because what if he had shot someone the second time?”

“We decided to treat an issue, which was in many ways a poverty issue or a public health issue, like addiction, like a criminal issue based on fear and emotion,” said Holden.

In 2016, after much urging from those in the criminal justice reform movement, Angelos’ prosecutor had a change of heart and Angelos was released from prison.

“We’ve decided that we don’t trust judges to make decisions so we’re going to allow prosecutors to make decisions, and I don’t agree with that,” said Holden. “You’ve now got prosecutors who are prosecutors, judges, juries, and executioners.”

All of the panelists argued for the need to return power and discretion back to judges, as they are the only impartial ones in the process, rather than giving it to prosecutors.

“Now that I feel like I have a voice, it’s my job to bring some awareness. Because there are many more that are locked up that don’t get the attention, or get the push, or get the support of billionaires to back them or bring their court case to America’s eyes,” said Snoop. “It’s not my job to get those out who are there because they are supposed to be there, but those that are not supposed to be there for that time period.”

Also addressed were the collateral consequences of being released from prison.

In theory, upon release the ex-offenders have paid for the crimes they committed, but in reality, they often have to deal with the problems that persist because of their criminal conviction, whether it’s getting an apartment or a job.

“We decided to treat an issue, which was in many ways a poverty issue or a public health issue, like addiction, like a criminal issue based on fear and emotion…”

Holden has been a leading force behind the Ban the Box movement and is responsible for doing so at Koch Industries. Snoop Dogg created the Snoop Youth Football Team over ten years ago to provide an alternative activity for inner-city school kids to steer them away from entering gangs and inevitably the criminal justice system. Both are advocates in their own right.

One thing you don’t often hear, from Republicans or Democrats, is ownership of the issue, but Snoop Dogg and Holden acknowledged it is a bipartisan problem.

When asked about criminal justice reform prospects on the federal level, Holden had hope, but pointed to bills killed due to partisan measures. He believes that, due to her past actions, Clinton likely would not have been a president who would make criminal justice reform a priority.

Snoop also chimed in mentioning the three-strikes provision brought about by the Clinton crime bill saying, “one of my homeboys is still in the penitentiary behind those three-strikes.”

The underlying theme of most of the dialogue was that states have led on this issue, and they should continue to do so, regardless of political powers in D.C. Whether it was Snoop urging states to look at decriminalization of marijuana or Holden citing the importance of states funding indigent defense, they both encouraged the states to tackle the issue and do what they can to reduce incarceration.

“We spend $80 billion alone on incarcerating in this country, which is three to four times more per capita than we spend on education. So if you are what you eat, you definitely are what you spend, and that’s the message we’re sending here,” said Holden.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.