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I Turned Down 3 Years in Prison and Ended up with 15 to Life


A new report by Human Rights Watch titled “An Offer You Can’t Refuse” reveals that only three percent of U.S. drug defendants in federal cases chose to go to trial instead of pleading guilty in 2012. The report explains that the reason only three percent go to trial is because prosecutors warn defendants that if they refuse the plea and go to trail, they will be charged with a more series crime and end up with a much longer sentence.

Prosecutors live and die for convictions and they use mandatory minimum sentencing as a prosecutorial tool to secure convictions and get people to plead guilty without getting their right to a fair trial.

People’s fear of angering prosecutors by going to trial is real. The reports shows that defendants who chose to exercise their constitutional rights to go to trial routinely face sentences three times greater than the original plea deals. This is an astounding revelation.

I know the pressure to take a deal and the disatroious consequences of taking my case to trial. In 1985 I refused a plea deal of three years and end up being sentenced to 15 years to life under the mandatory provisions of New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.

I was duped into delivering an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine for $500 by a bowling buddy. During the criminal proceedings the district attorney’s office discovered I was not a drug dealer but nevertheless, they wanted to secure a conviction.

During the trial the assistant district attorney approached me and asked how old my daughter was. I told him she was seven years old. He told me if I chose to go to trial the next time I would see my daughter is when she was 22, take the plea offer of three years to life because you will never win. I was afraid of being away from my wife and daughter for three years. I refused the offer and a few days later I was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. I could not believe it.

Not taking the plea deal of three years to life was the biggest mistake of my life. Because I refused the offer I was sentenced to more than five times the amount of time I was offered in the plea bargain. During my years of imprisonment I tried to commit suicide, I was stuck with a knife, and I was beat down with a pipe.

But nothing hurt me more than my separation from my daughter, Stephanie. Her child-like innocence gave me the will to live when I wanted to die.

Although I tried to keep a relationship with her, she suffered greatly from my prison sentence. No child should have experienced the horrible conditions she had to go through, such as body searches, long waiting lines and abusive correction officers.

Little by little, her beautiful child-like demeanor disappeared, and was replaced with a sadness and depression generally seen in a much older person. By the time she was 12, she had become psychologically damaged, and so traumatized by the prison experience that she could no longer visit me.

From my relationship with my daughter I learned that prison did not end at the wall that separated me from society. It went far beyond it, reaching loved ones and friends of those incarcerated. When I refused the plea offer my life changed forever.

I commend Human Rights Watch for exposing how prosecutors get drug defendants to accept plea bargains by charging them with extraordinary long sentences under mandatory minimums. It is time to end harsh mandatory minimums that both destroy lives and may a mockery of our “justice” system.

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: 

Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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