Cutting the Nose to Spite the Face: How Extreme Sentence Enhancements Punish Society
By: Rahsaan “New York” Thomas
Rahsaan Thomas at San Quentin State Prison
Would you want me as a neighbor?
I produce a podcast with over 38 million downloads. I am producing a short film for the Marshall Project and the Sundance Film Festival. I co-founded Prison Renaissance. I co-starred in an episode of United Shades of America with Kamau Bell. Until COVID-19, my college graduation was scheduled for June 12th. I work to achieve social justice with Initiate Justice and the Ella Baker Center. I counsel kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am also currently convicted of 2nd degree murder, attempted voluntary manslaughter with a sentence of 20 years plus an additional 35-to-life for using a gun to commit those crimes.
I write to speak out against California’s extreme sentencing enhancements. Sentence enhancements involve adding up to an extra 25-to-life per count in crimes committed to benefit a gang, making someone move a few feet by force aka kidnapping, the Three-Strikes law, and for using a gun in a crime that causes death.
It’s hard to say what’s extreme when you’ve caused death. However, not everyone in prison for an extreme sentence has killed — a guy has 299 years for bank robbery under the Three Strikes Law, plus prison priors, plus gun enhancements. I’ve met others who have never physically harmed anyone sentenced to life under the Three-Strikes law. Moreover, I know men who have killed, but have since connected to remorse, aged out of crime, and would be great neighbors if released today.
Some people say killers should die in prison. I believe these people speak from pain and the fear that we will always be evil. However, most of us are not evil, we were traumatized.
Those of us who take self-help groups identify the childhood event that influenced our emotions to supersede intelligence, and we connect with remorse. Repentance drives us to stop violence in the very communities that banished us forever in the name of paying our debt.
Sitting in a prison cell forever doesn’t pay society back a cent. Actually, it costs taxpayers $85,000 a year for each person whose continued incarceration is unnecessary. Additionally, society is denied more tax payers, millions that could be put to education, and mentors with the street credibility to reach young minds before someone else gets murdered.
At San Quentin, we do what we can from prison. Two Saturdays a month, through the SQUIRES program, five incarcerated men sit in a classroom with about eight kids. The youngsters hear about the trauma that caused our emotions to supersede our intelligence. For myself, it was when a neighborhood kid robbing me shot my little brother. I ran leaving little bro behind. I felt like a coward for running and started carrying a gun to repay the past in future confrontations. I let the kids know how much agony I caused so many families, including my own. Afterwards, the kids reveal the emotional pain fueling their bad behavior — secrets they have never told anyone else. But then they return to their circumstances and we usually never see them again. I know we could do so much more if released.
Additionally, I argue against extreme sentences because they eliminated meaningful recognition of mitigating circumstances. Gun enhancements add first-degree murder time to lesser offenses even when the killing wasn’t planned and the victim has done something so foul that it could provoke a reasonable person to snap and react in violence.
In my case, I shot two men who were armed with semi-automatic weapons. They were in the middle of committing larceny against me during some business I had no business being in. Charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder, my jury wasted four days arguing before setting on lesser degrees because gun enhancements still put my sentence beyond the average life span.
I don’t know if I deserved it, but I do know that neither my family nor society deserve to keep paying for my mistakes. I believe the man I am today would be a great neighbor.
In 2018, California altered the gun enhancement law from mandatory and consecutive for each count to discretionary. However, the revision isn’t retroactive so it doesn’t apply to me unless resentenced for some other reason. Thereby, those in court can potentially benefit from the recent change while those who have served decades in prison, aged out of crime and have changed our lives, are left inside.
If you think I would make a great neighbor, support ending extreme sentencing in California.
Rahsaan Thomas is an Initiate Justice Inside Organizer and Board Member, and the designer of our 2018 Voting Rights and Democracy Act. He is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, where he is a writer for the San Quentin News, co-author of Uncaged Stories, and has been published in the Missouri Review’s Literature on Lockdown, Life of the Law and The Beat Within. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, co-founder of the organization Prison Renaissance, and a co-producer and co-host of Ear Hustle. He is serving a 55-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, with a 35-year enhancement for using a firearm.