Enabling Reinvention

Broken – America’s Criminal Justice System

By Robert Wood, Senior Social Media Advisor – The Prison Scholar Fund

March 7, 2002. The crack of dawn.  Rain constantly pounds the pavement. On the gang infested East Side of San Diego where gunshots ring throughout the night and police constantly speed to deal with crimes from prostitution and drug dealing all the way up to gang related murders. I’m sleeping in a back house on 41st Street. Suddenly thunder roars out. An earthquake rocks the bed beneath me. I instantly sit up as I hear another loud thud. The words, “FBI open up” pierce my ear drums. I dart out of bed and instead of opening the door I look out the window of my walk in closet. There’s a helicopter hovering what seems like feet away from my window with an assault rifle staring me in the face. I rush back into the bedroom in panicky and then out into the living room.

At my front door there are several hard knocks and the words “FBI open up” are yelled again even more authoritatively and seemingly more dangerously. I open the door in nothing but my underwear and a pair of shower shoes. The Feds rush in with assault rifles and riot gear. They push me face first into the carpet. As they take me outside there are news cameras and more cops, including local authorities. It’s raining hard, I’m basically nude in nothing but boxers and shower shoes, and in my world there’s an even bigger storm than this brewing. This was the first day of the rest of my life and thanks to mandatory minimum drug sentences it would feel like the last.

My name is Robert Wood. I was sentenced to 10 years for violent crimes in aid of racketeering running concurrent with 25 years for 20 kilos of crack within a drug conspiracy. That basically means I was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. Back in 2002 when I caught the case that 20 kilos of crack within our drug conspiracy was treated the same as 2000 kilos of cocaine. That’s right 2000 kilos of cocaine! The law back then required that crack cocaine, primarily a drug sold and used in Black and Latino neighborhoods, be considered 100 times the equivalent amount of powdered cocaine. At this time that has been reduced to 18 to 1. Under current laws 20 kilos of crack is still treated as 360 kilos of powdered cocaine. Not great, but much better. That is not all that’s wrong with the criminal justice system. Let me explain how being in the system has affected my family as well as myself.

The same morning – La Mesa, CA near San Diego: the mother of my child sleeps with my three beautiful step daughters and my son in her belly. She’s six months pregnant and thanks to the harsh criminal justice system she doesn’t realize that I won’t spend time with my son on the streets until he graduates high school. My step daughters will sorely miss my presence. Sure I’ll talk, write letters, and do the best I can to mentor them but how do you tell children that unfair laws have removed you from the equation of their life. El Cajon, CA near San Diego: my mother, Brenda Crockette Wood, sleeps in the house with my daughter Bethany whom she’s been raising for me but who I have also recently began to spend a whole lot of time with. Now that we are bonding very well cruel fate and a warped criminal justice system will separate us for nearly two decades. Unfortunately my precious mother will actually die prior to me ever getting out. As tragic as my mother’s death was for me with me being gone, my daughter is hyper affected by it.

I also have two nieces whose dad was violently murdered back in 1997. I spend time with them quite often because they are my nieces and I love them and they need a man in their life. At the time I went to jail all these kids were between the ages of 5 – 10 years old with the exception of Bethany who was 15. They are all in their 20s now with the exception of my son Robert who is 16 years old. I do take responsibility for my actions as the reason I had to leave their lives but not for the exceptional length of time. That was due to broken criminal justice system.

Now don’t get me wrong I was no angel on the streets but every individual who is charged with a crime deserves the benefit of a fair criminal justice system that works. Initially when I got locked up I was told that for exceptional rehabilitation you could put in a motion to the judge and they could reduce your sentence. That changed right around the year 2000. Why? I have no idea. There is no parole board and no way to monitor who is making progress towards rehabilitation and properly reward them for it. The laws in the feds often attach sentences several times the amount the same exact crime carries in various states and even give time just for “conspiracy” which is like just thinking about or plotting a crime and has a very low bar for real evidence. They have the highest conviction rate in the world not because they’re so good but because the prosecutor has enormous power in the federal system and when they do get caught doing something unethical there are generally no circumstances unless it is made public for some reason.

While doing my time I have seen laws change and not go retroactive, similar to parts of the First Step Act, which I do think is a great first step. I have watched people die in prison on cases they should have been out years ago on. I’ve also watched as legislative fixes to criminal justice reform have picked up the steam it has now. With just a little more support and effort we can move forward and make a huge difference in many lives. We need for ex-offenders to have the right to vote so that they will be listened to instead of ignored and treated subhuman by certain politicians. We also need Pell grants in the federal prison system so that inmates have access to education and vocational programs. That way they can make real progress towards getting out as productive citizens upon completion of their sentences. Finally, we need these unjust laws reformed so that simple drug crimes and other offenses don’t carry so much time that the rehabilitation makes no difference. Please support criminal justice reform in every way you can. Lots of people, families, children, and many others are counting on you.

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