The Judge proclaims my sentence in the grand and marble adorned courtroom and all I can do is hang my head. I take deep breaths because the dizziness may take me down where the sentence struck. The years that I face seem like a treacherous mountain but oddly enough it’s nothing compared to the feeling of despair and uneasiness I feel in my aching heart. I hang my head and exit with the bailiff and I listen to keys jangling and the click-clack of heels on polished floors. I look down and see my reflection off those polished floors and I see tears falling.

It’s the obvious punishment for crime to have to “do the time”. But there is an unexpected consequence of the bad decisions made and the punishment handed down. Neither the judge nor the concerned citizens that clamor for “tough sentences” can fathom the collateral damage that prison sentences bring. Firsthand I can tell you about “mandatory minimums” and unintended consequences.

At 18 years old I justifiably was given a lengthy prison term for many mistakes I made spiraling out of control in the wake of my mother’s suicide. I served nearly 9 years.  I was released from prison and realized all my dreams. I married my high school sweetheart, got married, had a beautiful baby boy, and was in barber college. Addiction began getting the best of me and I struggled to find my place in society nonetheless and waged a war between making the right choices and the habits that had been formed inside prison walls. One day I was pulled over with a friend who had a gun in my car and we both got charged. He went to state prison and I got the armed career criminal act — 15 years mandatory minimum.

Maybe I deserved that lengthy sentence. But what hurt the most was the ache in my heart as I left that courtroom. That day not only marked the loss of freedom but the loss of my family… My whole life I wanted a whole and complete family because that was something I never had growing up. I always told myself that once I had a kid I would do everything possible to make sure my child never knew that void and incompleteness.

Nothing can erase THAT guilt that I feel now, nor replace that family that crumbled that day as the gavel sounded. I could take that time if I could rest assured that upon release there would be a happily ever after. But a mistake erased my whole family that I built and I wont see that happily ever after. My son will spend the next 15 years growing up with no father, seeing his mother struggle with addiction, different guys in and out of the picture, and lean to following in the same footsteps. The guilt of that conviction hurts more than anything the judge or jury could hand me. It eats at my heart and soul daily and torments my dreams at night.

So maybe when we clamor for lengthy sentences, or mandatory minimums, let’s consider everything that it entails. True enough some people deserve exactly the time they get, but I personally feel I have been served an injustice and so has my son…

— Robert H.

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