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Mandatory Life Sentences: We Are Nothing More Than Our Crime

In my eight plus years of public defending, this was my first time witnessing a life sentence imposed on a client.   Despite the gravity of the proceedings, I had nothing to do or prepare for.  Our state's legislature had deprived the Judge of any discretion to alter or reduce the sentence.  Anything I could say on my client's behalf would be moot.  The law left me powerless to save Mr. Sekhon from the life sentence before him.  

In early November, a jury, based on events that transpired on a single day in March of 2015, found my client Mr. Sekhon guilty of rape in concert of a woman and found an allegation that he kidnapped the woman to be true.  This combination of charge and allegation triggered California's “One-Strike” sex laws: Mr. Sekhon would be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.  He would be sentenced to a mandatory term of 15 years to life.   He would have to serve 15 years in prison before even being considered for release on parole but, if denied parole, could spend the rest of his life incarcerated.

Fast forward to his past Friday.  I appeared with Mr. Sekhon for sentencing.  Mr. Sekhon, as the law dictated, would be sentenced to the mandatory life term.  In my eight plus years of public defending, this was my first time witnessing a life sentence imposed on a client.   Despite the gravity of the proceedings, I had nothing to do or prepare for.  Our state's legislature had deprived the Judge of any discretion to alter or reduce the sentence.  Anything I could say on my client's behalf would be moot.  The law left me powerless to save Mr. Sekhon from the life sentence before him.  

It didn't matter that Mr. Sekhon was 32 years old with no prior arrests or convictions.  It didn't matter that he had never been to jail before this incident, let alone prison.  It didn't matter that he was previously employed.  It didn't matter that he had been heavily intoxicated on the incident date with over a .20 blood alcohol concentration that may have compromised his judgment.  It didn't matter that it was his co-defendant, not Mr. Sekhon, that initiated the day's events with the woman.  It didn't matter that Mr. Sekhon didn't use any weapons or restraints.  It didn't matter that Mr. Sekhon never struck the woman.  It didn't matter that the victim testified that she was on top of Mr. Sekhon during the sexual intercourse or that she walked freely with Mr. Sekhon multiple times when she was supposedly kidnapped.  It didn't matter that the probation department determined, based on an objective test, that Mr. Sekhon was a low-risk of reoffending.  It didn't matter that Mr. Sekhon, after his arrest, lived a model life in custody, completed every jail program available to him and learned, for the first time in his life, how to combat his struggles with alcohol.  

None of that mattered.  None of that mattered because we as a community and state have decided that someone convicted of certain offenses, regardless of context or circumstances, is defined only by those acts and nothing more.   We have decided that lengthy prison commitments are our best and only answer to certain criminal behaviors. All that mattered, then, was that Mr. Sekhon's conduct, as determined by a jury, fit the statutory elements of the crimes and allegations alleged.  Those marked checkboxes meant that the entirety of Mr. Sekhon's existence prior to that day's events were irrelevant.  The unique or unusual circumstances of the crime were irrelevant.  His future prospects were largely irrelevant. Instead, Mr. Sekhon was only fit for prison. Mr. Sekhon was nothing more than that day.  He was nothing more than his crimes.       

Bryan Stevenson wrote in his book “Just Mercy,” “Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”  The California legislature and citizenry disagrees, utilizing a draconian, one sized fits all sentencing scheme, stripping away judicial discretion and compassion in favor of mandatory minimums and life sentences for someone like Mr. Sekhon. In this state, depending on our crime, each of us can be nothing more than our worst act.  A tragic, dark, morbid, harsh view of human existence.

Assuming the societal need to incarcerate those convicted of heinous acts like sexual assault or murder for lengthy or life terms (a premise I don't necessarily accept), there must be room, based on objective measures, for context, for judicial discretion, for exceptional circumstances, for an infusion of humanity, for the hope of and belief in redemption.  

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