Commentary: Unlikely allies talk criminal justice reform at SXSW

Unlikely allies. That’s how I describe the partnership formed between me — a former convict — hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg and Mark Holden of Koch Industries. Yes, that Koch Industries. Yet an alliance is what we’ve become since last year. And on Saturday at South by Southwest, we’ll come together to discuss the issue that’s bound us all together: criminal justice reform.

We each have different reasons for supporting this cause, though our goal is the same: We want to reform the criminal justice system so that punishments better fit the crimes — and so that people who are convicted of crimes are able to re-enter society as contributing members. Our primary focus is on mandatory minimum sentences, which I found myself on the wrong side of 15 years ago.

My ordeal began in 2002. I was arrested for selling less than $1,000 worth of marijuana to a confidential informant on three occasions. I also was in possession of a gun. At the time, I was an up-and-coming music producer with my own record label called Extravagant Records. We had just released an album for Snoop, but the royalties hadn’t yet started coming in.

That turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life: As a first-time, nonviolent offender, I was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison. Apparently my charges carried several counts with mandatory minimum sentences, which mandate a specific prison sentence for specific crimes.

I’ll be the first to admit that what I did was wrong. I broke the law and I deserved to be punished. But 55 years for a nonviolent offender with no prior criminal record was extreme. Just 24 years old when I was sentenced, I wouldn’t be eligible for release until 2051 — when I would be nearly 80 years old. My two sons — who were just 5 and 7 — would likely have been grandfathers by the time they saw their own father outside of prison again.

Even the federal judge who sentenced me — Judge Paul G. Cassell — thought 55 years was too long. He described my punishment as “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” As Judge Cassell noted, someone convicted of aircraft hijacking, murder, kidnapping or rape would serve far less time than me. But that was the law. He couldn’t do a thing about it. And neither could I.

That’s where most people’s stories end — a life behind bars, dreaming of what could have been.

But my story wasn’t like most. Thanks to organizations like Koch Industries and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and people like my sister Lisa, Judge Cassell and the prosecutor in my case, my sentence was reduced last May. After serving 13 years of my 55-year sentence, I was released in time to see my son graduate from high school — something I thought I’d never witness.

That’s no doubt a happy ending. But for every person like me who was fortunate enough to have his sentence reduced, there are thousands more men and women who are stuck serving sentences that far exceed the crime committed. They’re missing their children’s birthdays, graduations and marriages — their entire lives.

That’s why I’ve committed my life to doing everything I can to ensure others don’t have my same experience. While those who break the law should face the consequences of their actions, the punishments should fit the crimes. And rather than just lock people away, we should explore alternatives to a prison sentence when it makes sense and then help offenders re-enter society as productive citizens.

But I can’t do this alone — which is why I’m working with Snoop and Holden to build more support for reform throughout our music culture and business community. I’m also producing a documentary with a former professional athlete, extending this alliance into the sports world.

It’s not every day you see such unlikely allies unite behind a single issue, but sometimes that’s what it takes to see meaningful reforms.

Angelos is the founder of Extravagant Records and the producer of “Unlikely Allies: How a Hip-Hop Music Figure Became a Symbol for a Cause.”

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