The Charles Koch Institute working with Generation Opportunity hosted a panel on the bleak state of our current criminal justice system last weekend at SXSW 2017. This panel brought together some unlikely allies – rapper Snoop Dogg, music producer Weldon Angelos, and Koch Industries’ Mark Holden – to speak to an audience of hundreds of music producers, artists, and music influencers about bringing change to the American justice system.
Weldon’s story about facing over-criminalization and injustice is well known. Now, he is out of prison early and on a mission to ensure that other low-level, non-violent offenders like him get another chance. He’s enlisted the help of business titans, musicians, and sports legends. That was on display when the three discussed how our system is broken, and why criminal justice reform is urgently needed.
Here are four surprising takeaways from their discussion, which you can watch here.
Weldon’s case is tragic—and all too common
An up-and-coming music producer, Weldon had just released an album for Snoop Dogg, but turned to dealing marijuana to make ends meet for his family while waiting for the royalty checks to come in.
That’s when he was arrested for selling marijuana to an informant. Because he was carrying a gun at the time, mandatory minimums required the judge to sentence Weldon—a non-violent, first-time offender—to 55 years in prison.
“It wasn’t like he’s a violent man or committed a violent crime. He was trying to provide a means for his family. He was just hustling,” Snoop said. Thanks to a change of heart from his prosecutor, Weldon is a now free man after spending 13 years in prison, but most in his situation aren’t so lucky.
For Snoop, it’s personal
Snoop has seen firsthand how the system can ruin lives, but also how vital second chances are. The rapper shared the heartbreaking story of his brother, who was convicted when he was just 17. While in prison, Snoop’s brother was placed on an anti-psychotic medication with serious side effects.
“We would go to visit him and he would just get slower and slower,” Snoop remembers. “It just got to a point where he couldn’t even communicate with us anymore.”
Snoop himself could have been just another statistic if not for the compassion of a probation officer who gave him a second chance after a probation violation. “[The probation officer] said, ‘I see you’re trying to do the right thing. Instead of me sending you to the penitentiary, I’m [going to] send you to the county for four months. When you get out, if you do good by me, I’ll let you off probation.’ I went for those four months, got out, and got a record deal.”
In this system, it’s better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent
Holden, who once worked as a jail guard, said in many of these cases, the defendants have no chance because states aren’t providing adequate representation. “You have a fundamental right to a lawyer when you are charged with a crime. That same government isn’t doing that, and yet they’re prosecuting you and trying to railroad you, and that’s an inherent conflict,” Holden said.
Holden said that our current justice system treats the rich and guilty much better than the poor and innocent. “If you’re wealthy and connected you’re going to be fine,” Holden said. “If you don’t have a lawyer, you’re hosed from beginning to end.”
There’s hope for the future
The current state of criminal justice seems hopeless, but everyone on the panel agreed support for reform is growing, particularly on the state level. Holden said he has hopes for reform on the federal level as well. Once President Trump and others understand criminal justice reform bills, Holden said, “there’s no way that anybody who’s reasonable would oppose them.”
Mark also highlighted the success of public-private partnerships like the Bard Prison Initiative, which brings college-level courses into prison, and Defy Ventures, which teaches inmates entrepreneurial skills. Both programs look to give inmates a second chance at life, and both have recidivism rates in the single digits.
Snoop isn’t just speaking up, he’s taking action as well. “Now that I have a voice, it’s my job to bring some awareness,” Snoop said. “I’m from the hood, so I’ve got to go back to the hood and do certain things that keep my relationships straight with brothers who have been wrongfully locked up.”
Snoop is also trying to keep kids from going down the road he and Weldon traveled. Several years ago, he launched a nonprofit, the Snoop Youth Football League, in Southern California. The program gives kids a chance to play football or cheer while teaching character and emphasizing academics. So far, it’s been wildly successful. The program is expanding to other states, and last year, 38 former members were playing for Divison-1 colleges.
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