By Kory “Hussain” McClary (Trenton, NJ)
As a plea deal, I was offered 22 years under New Jersey’s No Early Release Act (NERA), which prohibits defendants from being let out of prison before serving 85% of their total sentence. When I rejected the plea bargain, went to trial and blew, I was subsequently sentenced to 130 years.
Wow — a 108-year difference! Why was it that the prosecution believed that I could be reformed in 22 years if I took the deal, but I was considered an incorrigible offender because I embraced my constitutional right to a trial by jury. The judge found every aggregating factor he could to sentence a 22-year-old-me to death by incarceration.
“You’re a menace to society,” the judge told me. “This sentence will be a deterrent to others.”
Most Black men in the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) heard similar words for a crime they may have committed at even younger ages, effectively denying these men a life outside of these walls.
Today, I watched Derek Chauvin receive a 22-year sentence. It is my understanding that he will be eligible for parole after serving 15 years.
As we say in NJSP, “I can do 15 standing on my head.” Fifteen years is a light sentence. It’s a sentence that we pray for.
Inside NJSP, there is an overwhelming feeling of discrimination and outright racism when it comes to the judicial system and those of us of color. Seeing so many adjudications, it is a strong belief that White defendants get ultimately lesser sentences than those of us of color.
Derek Chauvin’s sentence is just another example.
Twenty-two years is a long time, and one of the reasons I rejected my plea deal. I’m not suggesting that Derek Chauvin deserved more or less time.
Carl Holdren, 32, who is incarcerated at NJSP, was 18, just 108 days into his adulthood when he was charged and subsequently convicted of his crime. He had been offered a 25-year plea deal, but he had rejected it. The judge sentenced Carl to life plus 40 years. “The judge told me since I’m maintaining my innocence, I didn’t change,” said Carl.
Fourteen years later, Carl said he has changed. “Before I believed I had to act and be a certain way because that’s what was around me,” he said, adding, “I didn’t think about others and how my actions affect those around me.”
Carl said that he wasn’t surprised by Chauvin’s sentence, “Of course the judge gave him 22 years,” he said. Thinking about his own sentence, he asked, “How is it that a 45-year-old cop can kill someone on camera and receive a favorable sentence, and I — an 18-year-old young man — gets life plus 40 years.”
Carl shook his head. “Why does a judge believe that a 45-year-old could be reformed after 22 years, but me at 18 is just a lost cause?”
That’s how the system sees most young Black men. And it makes it easier for a judge to throw our lives away, without a chance to show change.
If Carl had accepted the 25-year plea offered to him, Carl would have done 22 years before being eligible for parole. He would be released at age 39, enough time to be a productive member of society, and still be younger than Derek Chauvin when he committed his crime.
“I have a great support system,” said Carl. If afforded the opportunity to be free, Carl said he would take up a trade in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and start a family. “I have a bunch of positive people in my corner, and they’re rooting for me,” he said smiling. “I want a chance to speak with foster children and give them first hand knowledge of the streets and its dangers.”
What happens when the system considers you a juvenile, then in the same breath considers you an adult?
That’s what happened to Marquise “Smooth” Hawkins, 26, when he was convicted of a crime that occurred when he was 17 years old. Because of his crime, the system considered Smooth an adult, and sentenced him to 55 years. The judge decided that Smooth would not be fit for society until he was 69 years old — nine years younger than Derek Chauvin will be when he’s up for parole.
Though laws are changing, and Smooth is up to have his sentence reduced significantly because of his young age at the time of the crime, the contrast between his judge who thought nothing of knocking Smooth out of the box for 55 years and Derek Chauvin’s judge, who showed him compassion, is striking.
“The system will work for Derek Chauvin,” said Smooth. “He has a chance to be reformed.”
Smooth, Carl, and myself are only a fraction of the inmates who have received disparate sentences.
Twenty-two years would leave Smooth eligible for parole at age 35. Ten years younger than Derek Chauvin when he committed his crime.
Forty-five in contrast to the age 17. The decision making capabilities are that of a youth and that of an adult.
The reality of systemic racism is this: Derek Chauvin a 45-year-old white cop, gets a chance at freedom when he’s about 60 years old. For a crime he committed midlife. In turn, we as young Black men can’t say that we have the same opportunity as Derek Chauvin.
22 Years and Forever
By Paul Thompson (Greenhaven, New York)
Twenty-two years was the answer to the long-awaited fate of the trusted community protector gone rogue. Forever is how long it took America to hold one of its own tools of oppression accountable for cold-blooded murder.
In the famous words of Malcolm X, “The chickens have come home to roost!” The judge laid out his thought process in a 22-page decision, the families of both parties spoke and it was over. According to the Associated Press, Chauvin’s sentence was the longest sentence handed down to a police officer for killing a civilian. It symbolized a check on years of structural racism and oppression from those charged with protecting us.
Judge Cahill dealt Chauvin his fate.
Chauvin was someone who might have testified in Judge Cahill’s courtroom at some point and treated as a trusted witness. Chauvin’s words would have been used as the evidence to put a citizen in prison for life.
Now, he was speaking up to save himself from a system he represented. So in a sense the system was being sentenced. Every senseless and unjust killing at the hands of law enforcement from Eleanor Bumpers to George Floyd was represented in Chauvin sentencing.
Those were my thoughts before the sentence was handed down, but as I listened to my fellow comrades, neighbors, overseers and people I rarely associate with, I had to rethink my position.
The first thing I asked myself was: what is justice and what is its purpose? Did justice start when Chauvin was indicted and placed in handcuffs? Did it end when he was delivered to the state corrections department to start his bid?
I once believed justice started when the person who committed the crime realized that what he did was wrong, accepted the punishment and used his sentence to correct the very character that brought them to prison. But Floyd’s murder requires us all to think about what true justice really looks like.
At its core, society’s solution of putting a person in prison to rot is vengeance, not justice. My impression is that Officer Chauvin and others like him who kill, allegedly, in the line of duty believe they’re just doing their job. Was Chauvin just doing his job? Will Chauvin ever feel remorse for his actions or will he feel like a scapegoat for a society that is trying to transition away from the systemic racism of the past he represented so willingly?
Chauvin’s sentence is a stern warning to all who cloak their racist behavior behind a uniform and a good example of what can be done when we stick together as a nation to call out evil and hold it to account.
If justice is blind, does she hear the cheers of people around the country who applaud the system for finally getting it right? Can she smell the aroma of victory for those lying in their graves for no other reason than the color of their skin? Does she feel the long overdue winds of change in the air and on the cusp of reality for the next generation? Will we learn from the Chauvin case that policing in this country needs to change from the top down? I don’t know.
What I do know is Officer Chauvin will be locked a few cells away from someone whose neck he may have put his knee on and who survived — literally and figuratively. He will fear for his life like George Floyd did in the last minutes of his life.
So, how do I feel? I feel a small sliver of progress on the road to change. Hopefully, Chauvin’s sentence will tell police across the country that the unwarranted killing of citizens, especially citizens of color, will not be tolerated.
Chauvin must now contemplate what his life should have been. His words at sentencing were hollow, remorseless, and taunting. He alluded to “some other information in the future that would be of interest,” adding that he hoped it would provide peace of mind.
In my opinion, the only information that will provide peace of mind is the thought that it will take 22 years for Chauvin to understand he killed George Floyd using his badge, broke society’s trust and perpetuated racism that has been condoned, coddled and rewarded by others in law enforcement.
George Floyd is the martyr that will help America have the conversation about social injustices that represent the front lines of oppression and racism. That conversation was in the making since 1619.
The 22 year sentence is enough to get the ball rolling. But damn, as a nation, it took forever to get here.
Derek Chauvin Gets 22 Years In Prison
By Reginald Stephen (Greenhaven, NY)
I’d been out of my cell most of the day when I caught the 4 p.m. edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I had not thought about Chauvin’s sentencing until I heard it on the opening news previews for the evening lineup. But now, the Chauvin sentencing consumed my consciousness — for a moment.
I think the sentence was commensurate and fitting, considering the crime and its impact on the Floyd Family and the country. I hope that the Floyd family felt like justice was served and received some semblance of closure, as I imagine closure of this kind is difficult.
The arrest and conviction of Derek Chauvin is a seismic event in the pursuit of racial justice, but it’s just a side note compared to the spate of voter suppression laws in several states, the furor over critical race theory, the trenchant political divisions in Congress and continued fatal encounters between the police and unarmed citizens.
So, like most things, I have to compartmentalize the Floyd/Chauvin saga against all the issues of the world in violent flux while dealing with my own day to day. Those who feel Chauvin’s sentence wasn’t harsh enough should stay tuned: a federal prosecution looms in the not distant future for Chauvin, as well as separate prosecutions for the other three officers who were on the scene at the time.
In my opinion, justice is best served when the breach of justice is repaired. I don’t know if that is possible for all the parties involved here. It is certainly not possible for George Floyd.
Nevertheless, I believe we witnessed a fair and timely adjudication of the events of the Floyd/Chauvin saga, and our collective judicial sensibilities were appeased — this time.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.