My earliest release date is 2041. According to the World Almanac, my life expectancy as a Black man is 67 years old. I’ll be 66 years old in 2041, if I am released. If I make it. I came to prison in 1997 when I was 22 years old. In 1998, I was convicted by a jury of my peers for non-homicidal offenses. Thirty days later a black judge sentenced me to a 50 year determinate term in prison.

Psychologically, the sentence blew me away. It just kept echoing in my psyche: 50 years … fifty years …. 50 years …. fifty years. And for close to a decade, I self medicated to keep from believing this was the judicial systems way of killing me, legally.

A few years after being processed into state prison, I began working in the law library. I quickly realized that many of the men who looked like me also had astronomical sentences. Sentences that exceeded their life expectancy. They too were being legally executed, lynched.

We are strange fruit rotting on the judicial branches of a broken and morally antiquated system.

Recently, while doing research at the facilities law library, I discovered a Federal statute called “Truth-in-Sentencing incentive grants” under 34 USCA (United States Codes Annotated) § 12104 — which in a nutshell is Federal grant money allocated to the states for the sole purpose of ”requiring that persons convicted of a Part 1 violent crime to serve not less than 85% of the sentence imposed,”

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, as amended,  provides, among other things, incentive grants to states that have, in general, truth-in-sentencing (TIS) laws requiring violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their imposed sentences.

According to § 91.4 of the ‘Truth-in-sentencing incentive grants’ in order to be eligible for the Federal incentive grant money, a state must also have:

(i) increased the percentage of convicted violent felony offenders sentenced to prison;

(ii) increased the average prison time which will be served in prison by violent offenders sentenced to prison; and,

(iii) increased the percentage of sentence which will be served in prison by violent offenders sentenced to prison.

Moreover, under 34 USCA § 12108 ‘Authorization of Appropriations’, in the following fiscal years:

a. 1996 states received $997,500,00;
b. 1997 states received $1,330,000,000;
c. 1998 states received $2,527,000,000;
d. 1999 states received $2,660,000,000; and
e. 2000 states received $2,753,100,000.

Between the years of 1996-2000, the Federal government’s incentives grant program paid states 10.267 billion dollars to not only keep Americans incarcerated, but also to increase the percentage of sentences which would be served in prison. As incarceration rates continued to skyrocket, we can only assume that the appropriations paid to states increased exponentially. It did.

As of March 2021, the total cost of the mass incarceration crisis, including the cost to those incarcerated and their families is nearly $182 billion per year.

It is no secret that the ‘Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (referred to as the ’94 crime bill initiated by Clinton and signed then, by now President Biden), while endorsing and financing ineffective and damaging policies and practices at the state and local levels, increased the growth of police and prison infrastructure while limiting and often depleting community investments that would have increased public safety and enhanced educational opportunities, particularly in under-resourced communities.

It is also no secret that Black people — although making up only 13% of the United States population —  account for 33% of all prisoners. And Latino’s — although making up only 16% of the adult population — account for 23% of the Nation’s prisoners. Thus, the Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities have been most impacted by the Criminal Justice system. There seems to be a cause to this effect: Incentive grants.

The first question that must be evaluated is how such incentives influence judges and prosecutors who are judicial officers, elected to represent the interest of the state. There can be no dispute that a pivotal interest of any state is revenue and we have to consider how such incentives for additional revenue influence judges and prosecutors’ decisions to promote (unconsciously) ideals to incarcerate.

Second, where and how has this money been spent and by whom? And most critical, can such policies be impartial? The first question is intricately connected with the last. Considering the fact that minorities have been disproportionately effected by over-policing and disparaging sentencing policies.

Most recently, a host of senators, introduced House Resolution 226 on March 21, 2021, proposing that ”the United States has a moral obligation to meet its foundational promise of guaranteed justice for all.” In this resolution it speaks to ”an incarceration crisis that has destabilized millions of Americans, caused intergenerational harm and trauma to families and decimated entire communities.” They speak to the ‘Broken Windows’ policing, zero-tolerance policies that have caused a cradle-to-prison pipeline, repealing Truth-in-sentencing, three strike policies and many other factors that have and continue to contribute to the functioning of our Nations’s Criminal Injustice system.

I can only speak to my personal experience and that as a prison law library clerk. Prior to proceeding to trial I rejected a plea offer (bargain) of 23 years. Yet, after being convicted for two robberies I was sentenced to 50 years. A difference of 27 years. More than double the amount that I was offered on a plea bargain. Based on this data, we can assume one of two things, 1. I was sentenced to 50 years as punishment for exercising my right to a fair trial; or, 2. I was sentenced to 50 years as a means to further fulfill a financial grant quota toward incentive based sentencing.

Many of the cases I have worked on through out my twenty plus years in prison promote the same logical outcome. Men being offered substantially lower pleas before trial (e.g. 10 yrs) and after being convicted at trial being sentenced to double or triple the amount they were offered on their original plea bargains (e.g. 20-40 yrs). We can conclude they were either penalized for exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial, or they are victims of an increased sentencing program for the purpose of states being eligible for Federally based incentive grants. If the judges and prosecutors are aware of these financial incentives, which I am sure they are, how can it be unbiased? How can it possibly be impartial?

Support Sheldon’s release at Freesheldonjohnson@FB.