Criminal Justice

I Helped Put a Man in Prison for 25 Years and I Feel Horrible About It

Now I'm trying to make amends.

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As an undergrad, I felt lucky to nab an internship in the U.S. Attorney's Office at the Department of Justice. The job wavered between dull and discomfiting: listening in on prisoners' phone calls and attempting to identify the faces of 'suspicious' individuals on city surveillance camera footage.

But my biggest project was "Joe." Joe had a record; he'd been caught selling crack a few years before. He also had a conviction for a robbery in a different state when he was only 19. He got arrested again in the poor neighborhood where he lived, and a jury once again found him guilty of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.

A lowly intern, I worked diligently for a month, gathering all the evidence against Joe from his jury trial. A few days after my semester came to a close, the day of the sentencing hearing arrived. I was excited. I was young and degree-less, and I was going to get to see the culmination of my efforts in a U.S. District Court. I wore my best suit and heels and bragged to my parents about my plans for the day.

The government invoked the 1984 Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Justice lawyers argued that Joe had three strikes against him. The judge was obligated to give Joe the mandatory minimum of 15 years. But prosecutors wanted more. They wanted Joe locked up for as long as possible, claiming that he was a danger to the community.

I arrived early and sat behind the prosecutor. Doors in the back right corner of the room opened and there—in chains and a jumpsuit—was Joe. I had seen pictures of him and even heard his voice many times while working with his case. But when I saw him in the flesh for the first time, my enthusiasm and pride congealed into something far more unpleasant—qualms about the justice and efficacy of the criminal justice system I'd been suppressing suddenly came to the forefront of my mind. 

Even before my internship inside of the Department of Justice, I knew that the U.S. incarcerates too many people, often for long terms that don't match up with the severity of the crime, but it was never real to me until that moment.

The hearing was over quickly. Joe got more than 25 years in federal prison, plus 6 years of post-prison supervision and a faintly ridiculous $3,500 in fines.

As I walked out of the courtroom, I knew the prosecutors were probably disappointed: Even though the judge had given Joe 10 years more than the law required, they'd asked for a full decade more. I was overrun with guilt. I had done that to Joe. Sure, I hadn't done it alone. But I'd worked hard to get a man locked in a metal cage for a quarter century and until right that minute I'd been unambiguously (and maybe even a bit smugly) proud of myself for it.

Now I'm trying to make amends. I have a new gig working on criminal justice reform for the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason, doing research to help curtail overcriminalization and mass incarceration of Americans. I am working on state-level statutes and legislation that can be reformed to ease the strain on overpopulated prisons, overburdened taxpayers, and non-violent offenders. I regret my work compiling that file on Joe, but the reports I assemble from now on will be very different.

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  2. Get a flippin blog. We’re not your father confessor.

    1. Fuck off. I enjoyed the article. Do you ever post anything that isn’t whining?

      1. He’s got a point though. The quiet dignity of working at a non-profit to change an issue you feel strongly about kind of loses its quietness and its dignity if you make it all about yourself.

        1. I don’t know. If this is a one time mea culpa and then she works hard to write strong articles she is passionate about, I’m cool with it.

          1. Also, full disclosure isn’t a vanity thing – it’s something that’s pretty much required.

            Imagine if she hadn’t mentioned it, and then the DA triumphantly printed an article outing her as having helped him implement the policies she’s now criticizing!

          2. If she were really sincere, she’d have “Joe’s” case file in had assisting his defense appeal pro se.

            Saying your sorry is not as powerful as taking tangible action to make amends.

            1. She didn’t say she was an attorney.

              But sure, she can petition Obama for a pardon. He’s assured us he’s looking for excessive sentences to commute!

              (No earlier than Jan. 20, 2017)

            2. Um, she is making tangible efforts to stop this sort of bullshit. This article counts as well. If it helps convince someone our criminal justice system is fucked then it has surely helped.

            3. She’d get disbarred–you can’t jump sides and represent the guy you helped put away.

        2. Fuck off, PMS. You’re not helping.

          She did something shitty, and is now trying to make amends. Admitting her participation in the process does give her credibility that some random person uninvolved with that wouldn’t have.

          1. Go fuck yourself with a rusty spoon, it’s an open comment section and I’m as entitled to an opinion as you are. I’m not here to “help” you or anybody else, whatever that might possibly even mean in the context of this particular discussion.

            The personal confession isn’t going to change the process in which she played a very tangential role. If she wants to apologize to the guy, she should do so privately. It doesn’t give her any more credibility than any of the other people working on the same issue who didn’t work as prosecution toadies. The strength of her writing and her work should stand on its own. The self-congratulatory come to Jesus story adds nothing.

            And it really would do you some good to expand your repertoire outside of scatological references – you look plenty stupid enough on the merits of what you actually say without also behaving like a 5 year old on the first day of kindergarten.

            1. And we’re entitled to tell you to qwitcherbitchin! round and round and around we go!

              I don’t understand this phenomenon – bitch and moan about bullshit on the margins that you mostly agree with.

              1. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

                1. TWO COMMENTERS ENTER, ONE COMMENTER LEAVES!

                2. Don’t be messin’ with the purity of my essence!

        3. She realized the mistake and has changed. Most people just rationalize that the innocents they jailed were lubricant for the gears of justice.

          1. I think the most interesting part of the article is that Joe is clearly NOT innocent. She worked her ass off and got the guy put in prison. This doesn’t end with “But he didn’t do it and I feel bad!”

            The problem is not that he was innocent, he most certainly wasn’t, but that the law he broke is unfar and the system in which he was convicted is unfair. Much much more interesting.

        4. Really? You actually think she’s making it all about herself? Because she really isn’t.

      2. With the name “Warren,” I wouldn’t expect anything other than whining and class envy.

    2. I know Catholics think confession is something private between the penitent and the priest but in the Reformed tradition confession must be public.

      Now, any good Calvinist knows Alea has heard the call and I join the congregation in singing the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”

      The rest is up to her but now she has friends who will stand with her to the end..

      1. I like you.

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  3. I don’t understand why seeing him in the flesh changed your mind. You didn’t describe that event in enough detail. What was it about his appearance? Or was it that before you didn’t see him as a person and then all of a sudden you did?

    1. Many times there’s an event in a person’s life to make them see the light. The thing doesn’t necessarily have to make sense as a trigger, but it happens.

      From what I’ve seen, there are many people in criminal justice who interact personally with their targets often yet who still see them as something on an assembly line. This appears to be someone who realized it’s actual lives we’re fucking with. Lives we only get one of.

  4. Oh crap, it’s the new intern, quick, hide the bodies and the orphans! *Everyone shuffles around maniacally and looks inconspicuous.*

    Sounds like you had your own personal little Milgram experiment, where you didn’t really consider the consequences of your actions until they were staring you in the face and you were unable to shuffle responsibility to a higher authority figure. At least you recognized the guilt, which is more than I can say for the few prosecutors I’ve dealt with.

    Just as a head’s up Ms. Weaver, you come off as somewhat…young and naive. And some of the commentators are, in general, jerks, madmen, or generally just awful people. Some of this is just normal internet ribbing, while other people are just cunts. Still, at least you have alt text.

    1. And some of the commentators are, in general, jerks, madmen, or generally just awful people.

      Hey now! I resemble that remark!

      1. “Is there anything else I need to know before I take this internship?”

        “Alexa, by any chance have you been in touch with Virginia Postrel?”

      2. I was thinking why not all three?

      3. I’m super-offended!

        Seriously, good article.

    2. Shush! You’ll scare her off!
      /opens box of chocolates and hides in bushes

      1. Don’t eat the chocolates, they’re made of meth and gator meat.

        1. Waddayamean, “Don’t” eat the meth and gator meat?

          1. Only for the newbie’s sake, she needs to improve her meth tolerance first.

    3. Just as a head’s up Ms. Weaver, you come off as somewhat…young and naive. And some of the commentators are, in general, jerks, madmen, or generally just awful people.

      Implying anyone from Reason reads the comments…

      1. Jesse walker and Ron do. Sometimes Matt welch does.

          1. My guess is probably about half the Reason staff occasionally descends into the abyss to mingle with us lowlifes

            1. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also tries to yank your chain.

              1. Hmmm…that sounds more sinister than I’d intended.

                1. yanking usually does…

            2. If I was a professional writer I would dive into the comments just for criticism. Some people here are very strong on spelling and grammar. Others are experts in various fields and could expand my knowledge in a particular area I was ignorant of. It’s an opportunity for growth, even if it is painful.

              1. It’s only as painful as you want it to be. Hecklers and trolls should be easy to identify and ignore. And this is the information age, after all. If you can’t stand someone saying something bad about you online, then you weren’t made for this world.

        1. Yep. If you’re nice sometimes they’ll even respond.

          But not like L, I mean, yes they will.

        2. You guys have all succumbed to the fatal error of believing that when a Reason writer posts something in the comments that they’ve actually read them.

          1. It is only fair. After all us commenters didn’t bother reading their article before posting.

            1. There are articles?

              1. and pictures???

                1. No, really, I swear!

                  I read it for the comments!

                  I don’t even know what a Liburturbian is, or however the say it.

                2. A nude selfie would be better.

            2. I am just here for the alt-text and Warty’s fitness tips.

      2. Hey, Virginia Postrel is aware of us, and thinks we’re scum.

        1. That implies someone out there doesn’t think we’re scum.

        2. Postrel has never gotten that “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” thing.

          1. Our snark makes you stronger Postrel, embrace your inner Nietzsche!

      3. Noah Berlatsky did at least once. Didn’t go well for him.

    4. “some of the commentators are, in general, jerks, madmen, or generally just awful people”

      Hey, I’m not mad!

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lb8fWUUXeKM

  5. Found her on LinkedIn

    Impressive resume. Cute too.

    1. Caddy experience? Why we need to use her as a mole in the Obama Administration!

      1. Demonstrated the ability to interact in a professional setting with CEO’s and presidents of large corporations

        I couldn’t do that. No way.

        1. I get to practice with my Swiss masters…I can do it.

          Of course, I used to have to talk to Generals, so that kind of prepared me for CEOs.

      2. She probably can handle her liqueur drink a lot.

      3. OMG! There’s a Koch Institute?
        I thought that was a joke or somekind of internet conspiricy thing.

  6. She didn’t provide false information. Has was guilty of all the crimes that led to his punishment. The judge sentenced him to less than what the prosecutor requested. Now she feels ‘bad’.

    Almost Onion worthy, but not quite. Just another example of the mush-headedness of today’s education system, and the definition of a bleeding heart Liberal.

    1. Has was guilty of all the crimes that led to his punishment.

      Someday, maybe you’ll learn the difference between legality and morality.

      1. The two rarely overlap. And the areas where they do overlap appear to be mostly accidental.

    2. If you missed the point that badly, there’s no point in explaining it to you.

      1. Dude it’s probably a drive-by, or at the very least a green n00b.

    3. You’ll find most of us here are of the opinion that the law and punishment has to be moral to be respected.

    4. Fuck off slaver!
      The morality of locking a man in a cage for participating in voluntary transactions between adults is just fucked.
      Yes what she did was morally wrong, the state does not make the metrics for morality just for arbitrarily enforced regulations.

      Welcome to the “light side” ma’am

    5. bleeding heart Liberal

      No, she’s a new breed: bleeding heart Libertarian.

      1. So, one has to be a bleeding heart to believe that locking somebody in a cage for 25 years for conducting voluntary trade is unjust? Fuck off, slaver.

        1. Thanks for the link

    6. And you’re the very definition of a douchebag who seems to believe that every law is right and virtuous. Fuck off, asshole.

  7. May want to clean up this line:

    …10 years more than the law required, they’d asked for a full decade more.

    1. means they wanted 35 not 25 what dont you get?

      1. Yes, but it isn’t clear. I, too, had to read it twice to get her meaning.

        1. Me too.

    2. They wanted more than the mandatory minimum. Seems pretty clear to me.

      1. It’s a bit unclear, since 10 years is equal to a full decade. It could potentially read like this: “Even though the judge had given Joe 10 years more than the law required, they’d asked for a full decade more [than the law required]”, in which case it would mean the judge had, in fact, given the prosecution precisely what they wanted. She means, of course, that the judge gave him 10 years more than the minimum, but the prosecutors wanted 20 years more than the minimum.

  8. You guys are such a-holes. Good piece, Alexa, and welcome to the fight.

    1. Correct on all counts.

      Don’t feel too bad – if it wasn’t you it would have been someone else. And you learned from it.

  9. Damn it, you guys, why can’t you just congratulate her on her change of heart and welcome her to our side? Honestly, where the hell does all this hostility come from?

    1. It’s the baptism by snark.

      1. More like the Reason snark jump in than a baptism.

      2. It’s the baptism by snark.

        It’s true. If she can’t handle us, how will she ever stand the withering illogic of professional statists?

    2. Listen, if you want to join the PFJ, you have to *really* hate the Romans.

      1. Nice, Loretta.

    3. What if she is a NSA plant BD? Did you think of that? You’re just gonna let her waltz in here and look around and not check for a wire? Come on! You act like this is the first cult you’ve joined.

      1. I have to admit, I would really like to check her for a wire.

      2. People from the NSA can be libertarians, too, goddamit.

      3. “What if she is a NSA plant BD?”

        I… I don’t know exactly how to put this, sir, but are you aware of what a serious breach of security that would be? I mean, she’ll see everything, she’ll… she’ll see the Big Board!

    4. War on wominz

    5. Have you ever actually read the comments here?

      Or hell for that matter have you ever actually read the comments anywhere on the internet.

      Even places where they tend to be more substantial and intelligent they are still fueled by snark

  10. It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

      1. Round here mr carpet bagger,we have something called the Missouri boat ride.

      2. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

    1. On a real Eastwood kick, today, I see.

      1. You get them holes a-leakin’, I’m’a whomp you with a knotted plow line.

    2. We thought about it for a long time, “Endeavor to persevere.” And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.

  11. OT but of a similar vein did anybody hear listen to NPR’s serial? Pretty great display of how our criminal system works, or at least MDs, and completely engrossing at least thus far.

    1. My woman really liked it. I tried to listen, but I can’t deal with NPR Voice. Too much bass or something.

    2. Yeah, I liked it a lot.

  12. Have you at least sent Joe a check for $3,500?

    1. Has he been working online part time with google?

  13. “All who heard her were astounded and said, “Is not this the woman who helped impose excessive sentences, and came expressly to take defendants in chains to serve long prison terms?””

    (inspired by Acts 9:21)

    1. Road to Damascus moment.

  14. I feel like the alt-text here is a sort of pre-emptive defense mechanism against the commentariat. Which means this new intern is a smart one.

    Welcome. Some percentage of the group is dangerous but in a sorta-cool way; you should probably not talk to them. Then again Nick also fits that description, so whatever.

    Also, I presume they checked on your cocktail making abilities. I’ll have a martini please, twist, with the vermouth thank you very much.

    1. COCKTAILZFSARKEAQP!

  15. By the way, in the interests of equality I expect a complete set of full disclosure articles now.

    “I Helped Put a Young Intern Writer Out to Pasture and I Feel Horrible About It”

    “I Helped Slap Down a Jezebel hack and I Feel Horrible About It”

    “I Once Owned Shares in an Oil Company and I Feel Horrible About It”

    “I Checked Out Kennedy’s Ass On Live TV and I Feel Horrible About It”

    etc. etc.

    1. “I Helped Slap Down a Jezebel hack and I Feel Horrible About It”

      That’s not something anyone should feel horrible about. Just the opposite, actually.

      1. There’s rules about picking on the special kids for a reason. You only get street cred if it’s difficult to do.

  16. I think a substantial portion of the vitriol directed at Ms. Weaver here can be attributed to her choice of headline pulled straight from the Precious Little Millenial Snowflake Journalism Stylebook.

    “I Did_____, and now I_____”

    Seriously, that shit has to stop.

    1. “I Did_____, and now I feel _____”

      You forgot that key word.

      1. I did some PCP and now I feel like I can kick ten cop’s asses?

  17. I think this full disclosure bit is an answer to the rash of “Confessions of An Ex-Libertarian” articles of recent years, which hopefully weren’t counted toward the Libertarian Moment.

  18. Christ. She’s introducing herself. So of course it’s about her. Presumably future posts won’t be about her.

    Maybe you guys should reserve your vitriol for a more deserving target. There is no shortage of them.

  19. The hearing was over quickly. Joe got more than 25 years in federal prison, plus 6 years of post-prison supervision and a faintly ridiculous $3,500 in fines.

    Didn’t I point out something along these lines before. Where there was a penalty of like 10 years in prison and/or $75 in fines?

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  21. Good article. I can easily understand how a young person would have faith in the US justice system, be proud to put a “criminal” away for decades, and then come to a true understanding of the human consequences of her actions in an instant. It is good that she recognizes that the state often acts unjustly, and that she is doing what she can to redress this. I wish her the best of success.

    1. agree w/ this ^

  22. Well, that scribe in training came in with an eerie bang. On the sunny side though, praise the Lords the experience enlightened her greatly it seems. May her future with Reason greatly profit the social conscience.

  23. The author seems sincere and she’s apparently trying to atone, but two things just don’t add up. First, if she had such “qualms about the justice and efficacy of the criminal justice system I’d been suppressing” then why did she take an internship with the DOJ? Last time I checked, they were the federal agency charged with enforcing the criminal justice system. That’s pretty much what they’re all about. Second, why did she suddenly have a change in heart? She writes that she watched the defendant enter the courtroom and … what? I’m wondering if part of this article was edited out before it went online.

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  25. Come into the light, Alexa.

  26. Alexa (and most people here) are likely grossly overestimating her effect on the outcome.

    She created a pile of paper that likely got maybe 30 seconds of a glance from anyone. She compiled evidence *from* the trial, not *for* the trial.

    With verdicts in hand, are the judge and prosecutor going to give a shit about the *evidence*? They’re not going to relitigate the verdict.

    She did a bunch of irrelevant busy work for The Machine. The janitor (excuse me, sanitation engineer) probably had more of an effect on the outcome. Per a recent article, the person who *scheduled* the hearing certainly did.

  27. Good for you Alexa. You’re attempting to help make the world a better and more just place for all of us to live, you keep up the good work.

    Most of these commenters have likely never done anything to help anyone but themselves. And it’s easy to criticise from your armchair on the side lines, while drinking the kool-aid.

    Can’t wait to hear about your progress.

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