When the Assistant State Attorney called to inform me that the man who held a gun to my head had taken a plea deal for 17 years in prison, I cried for the first time in over a year and a half since the carjacking. Her voice quivered with excitement. She was happy because she knew I would be relieved to not have to testify in a courtroom with the gunman sitting in front of me. Prosecutors also have a strong sense of justice, and she knew this man belonged in prison for a long time. We both agreed that the minimum sentence of 10 years for this crime would suffice, but due to the severity and frequency of his criminal activity, he deserved much more.
Over the course of the brief conversation, she stated that she thought he finally relented and gave into a guilty plea after the judge advised him that a conviction in trial could mean life in prison, as using a deadly weapon in a carjacking is a punishable-by-life crime in the state of Florida. He’s 24. His mother was apparently at the hearing that morning and was part of her son’s decision to take the plea. Another mother faced with the prospect of losing her son to the prison system for rest of his life surely convinced him that with only 17 years behind bars, he still had a chance at something worth living for in middle age.
I cried the morning of the call out of relief. Reliving the events of that Tuesday night in May of 2017 in front of the angry eyes of a man I remember so clearly, albeit in the safety of a courtroom, seemed almost too much for me; although, I was willing. I cried because I was released from the grip of the criminal justice system, which had bound me for a year and a half through regular new subpoenas and requirements to testify for attorneys, or sit on standby for trial. But really, the person I cried for the most was this young man’s mother. Another mother loses her son to prison for a senseless crime he could have prevented.
Florida has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, with a total of 960 incarcerated people per 100,000 residents. The national average is 890[i]. We all know that incarceration has tremendous effects on families. This man had been to prison once before for three years, before he even committed the crime against me at the age of 22. Without a real education, other than the streets and gang members he associated with, he is already facing severely limited opportunities for advancement in life, even without the stamp of “felon” he’ll wear forever. When he emerges from prison around the age of 40, he’ll be 20 years behind his peers in navigating the real world.
Additionally, Florida’s recidivism rate is 33% after three years, meaning that one out of three offenders will return to prison within three years of release, and that number increases to 65% after five years. There is a chance that this man may never break free of the system.
Over the same year and a half that I was a witness of the state and regularly subpoenaed for trial, I was also a creative writing instructor for a program called Exchange for Change. Exchange for Change provides creative writing classes throughout several state prisons in the South Florida area. For two hours a week, I sat in a room with 10–12 convicted criminals, not unlike the man in my case, and we studied writing. The impact of the program on the men in my class was significant, and mine was only one class out of many.
Programs like Exchange for Change exist to provide a positive outlet in an otherwise negative world, and they are so, so necessary. Many of these men and women who are incarcerated will one day be back in our communities, so it’s important that they have opportunities for education, mental health services, and vocational training while they are on the inside. Not only does this provide reprieve from potential violent activities during their sentence, but it gives them hope for a positive outcome after it. Why is there not more community support for these programs, which in return, may help to decrease the recidivism rates, and subsequent crime rates in our communities? My worst fear would be this man leaving prison and returning to the life where he uses guns to steal cars and wallets, because the next victim may not be as lucky as I was.
But what if he had life skills, a purpose…. hope?
At the end of our phone call, the State Attorney asked me if I wanted to give a victim’s statement, or if I had anything to say to the man. I declined and told her I simply wanted to put the event behind me. However, if I did present a victim’s statement, it would include some of the following sentiments.
I hope that you learn and grow from this experience and hold onto every ounce of positivity from your time in prison, because there won’t be much of it. Focus on building allies with those who will support you, not hold you back, and take every opportunity to do good that you can. Understand that I don’t hate you and I forgive you on the condition that you do better for yourself. There is a possibility of a second chance at a meaningful life, and I hope you take it when the time comes, and your punishment is complete. I wish we were more supportive as a community, because I understand the need of many of the men you will encounter on the inside. The need for education, enrichment, faith, positive influences, better mental health resources, and eventually a place of support following incarceration. Most of all, I hope that you ultimately find happiness in a life absent of crime.
It’s important that we understand as a community that if we want safer streets for our kids, we need to focus on putting effort into the resources that encourage them to continuously do better. Obviously, the ideal would be to strongly encourage those predisposed to criminal activity into more productive activities before they commit any crimes, but if it’s too late before they are incarcerated, there may still be hope in preventing future recidivism by allowing a second chance through programs that support skills training and life resources.
The outcome in my case was fair. The punishment deserved, and justice served. I’m not saying he should have a lesser sentence or avoid prison time at all. There are consequences to crime, and I agree with the decision of the courts. Though I believe that there are no true winners when another mother loses her son to crime.
[i] Florida Policy Institute. https://www.fpi.institute/the-rate-of-incarceration-in-florida/