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  • Raymond Goins

ENDING DEATH ROW SENTENCES IS A STEP FORWARD, BUT TRUE JUSTICE MEANS A CHANCE AT FREEDOM FOR ALL

Re-published from Silicon Valley De-Bug


Editor's Note: In California, the Santa Clara County DA has announced he is resentencing those on death row. But author Raymond Goins, who won a resentencing after 18 years of incarceration, writes that true justice would be offering pathways to freedom, rather than still condemning people to die in prison through "life without parole" sentences.

 

In April of this year, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen announced he is exercising his prosecutorial discretion to resentence 15 men from death row to life without the possibility of parole, commonly referred to as LWOP. This means that these fortunate men will no longer be forced to endure a lifetime of mental torture while they await their date to be executed. Mr. Rosen has suggested that a couple of these men (Santa Clara County currently has sent no women to death row) may be given possible parole hearing eligibility. It is this opportunity, which he indicated would only be possibly considered for a couple of death row residents, which offers the most hope.


The opportunity for freedom, rather than LWOP, is the extraordinary act that deserves attention, as it could mean the ultimate second chance. But it should be offered to all of men, instead of condemning them to life without the possibility of parole.


For some in the public, LWOP may be considered a far better option than dying by gas, or by lethal injection, but “life without the possibility of parole” means just that. It means those individuals sentenced to LWOP still will go to sleep every night in a cell that at some point will become their coffin. 


DA Rosen may have taken a step in the right direction, but he must expand the use of his resentencing discretion by allowing those on LWOP to have a chance to come home. The act of taking people off of death row is indicative of a positive step, but it must lead to an active expansion into allowing individuals who have less severe consequences an opportunity to come home and be successful community members. This also applies to those who have less severe punishments then the death sentence or LWOP, but have been denied resentencing consideration simply because of allegation of violence in their conviction.


Well before DA Rosen’s decision regarding those on death row, these other resentencing applications by those serving long sentences have been before his office. These opportunities have been presented to the district attorney’s office through requests for resentencings by those inside and family members on the outside who have proven rehabilitation of once troubled individuals. 


I was one of those individuals the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office denied. They wanted me to stay incarcerated after 18 years in prison. DA Rosen, through DDA Kajani who runs their re-sentencing unit, declined to utilize their authority under the California Penal Code 1170 which allows the prosecutor authority to initiate a recall and resentence those individuals who are deemed rehabilitated. This is also despite the fact that I had strong family and community support advocating for my release through his prosecutorial discretion. I had to litigate my way to freedom, and even in that context the DA office, through DDA Boyd, fought hard to keep me inside. 


I was told their refusal to believe I would be better off in the community then incarcerated was due to my case being one that was violent. When the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation recommended that I be resentenced due to my rehabilitative success while in prison,  DA Rosen and his office strongly advocated to keep me in prison and dug their heels in. The district attorney’s office stood in front of my family and community support declaring that it was “The People's position” (“The People” being on behalf of the citizens of Santa Clara County) that it is in the interest of justice to keep me in prison.


My attorney and I beat the DA’s office in court. I have been home since February 17, 2023. I, as well as my family and my community, can say with certainty, that the DA office was wrong.

I hope that our district attorney can see the value of allowing rehabilitated men and women who are ready to come home, an opportunity to be free, and not deny them on the basis of their commitment offense. I am hoping that by the change that  DA Rosen has implemented in the reduction of those sentenced from the most severe punishment that our criminal justice system has, will be a sign of the beginning of letting other people with a violent conviction such as myself come home, so that they can be part of the healing process within their home and their extended communities. 


Having a violent offense should not be a disqualification for resentencing consideration. Especially when those who offend do the work to create the arc of transformation despite the horrible conditions, and make a change within themselves. The old adage “hurt people hurt people” is particularly true with those incarcerated. A lot of us, if not every one of those violent individuals, have had to experience traumatic events that most of society could never imagine going through. These men and women often are mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. They are valued members of the community that they belong to, and these individuals who have been rehabilitated can come home to be present in their community and utilize their lived experience to curb the generational destruction that often plagues the communities of Santa Clara County. 


As published in his Santa Clara County DA Dashboard (Addressing Violent Crimes Against Youth), DA Rosen says, “Violence against children and teenagers has negative consequences for their development and later life outcomes. Tracking violence against youths helps shape prosecutorial strategies for serving these victims and reducing future victimization.” 


With this understanding, DA Rosen expresses an understanding of the effect of a traumatic childhood experience. But those mitigating factors are often present in cases where individuals commit violent acts as well. Acknowledging that “violence against children and teenagers have negative consequences" is in my opinion the prerequisite to understanding why these men and women may have committed violent acts that led them to be sentenced to prison. Understanding that violent crimes may have been fueled by unaddressed trauma should allow the DA office to have a wider lens as to why it is in the interest of justice for people to be freed from lengthy prison terms.


I also happen to agree with our district attorney when in the same dashboard, under the category “Victimization of Racial and Ethnic Minorities” he states, “Race/ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of victimization than whites.” This is also an indicator of why our criminal justice system is composed mostly of racial/ethnic minorities. Faulting someone who grew up in conditions that create a necessity to learn how to survive, when as a child all you should be worried about is being a child, just does not seem to be humane to me. Physical, sexual, and mental abuse has a way of traumatizing a child, and creating pain that can at some point become explosive or violent. Unfortunately, I know all too well the impact that these traumas have. They played an integral part in me becoming a violent offender.  


Despite being thrown away by the criminal justice system, and discarded by society at a young age, through my own willingness to want better for myself and my community, I was able to learn about what trauma is and how it may have impacted my life. I learned new tools to use to address the trauma that molded me into becoming a violent offender in the eyes of our criminal justice system. Through self education I learned that not only did I inherit generational trauma from both roots of my family tree, I was born out of a traumatic experience, which manifested into being raised through the lens of trauma. Self reflection, therapy, and through counseling, I learned that trauma was something more than what I would hear on television shows depicted an the “ER Trauma Unit.” I finally was taught what trauma was, which allowed me for the first time in my life to address the problem to better myself. I also learned about how my Adverse Childhood Experiences factored into the development of my brain, and how those experiences often navigated my decision making. My Adverse Childhood Experience Score (Commonly referred as ACE’s score) ranged on the extremely high side. Which allowed me a starting point to begin to repair the thoughts associated with the given trauma. I was not alone in my effort to change. I was surrounded by other men in prison for violent offenses who like me experienced traumatic events, and we learned from each other new ways to cope with these traumas. I learned how to be rehabilitated from men who themselves had no need to be rehabilitated given they were never coming home. They were going to spend the of their lives in prison due to their sentence - they were LWOP’d. Those men, though at one point committed a violent act, have changed into role models for other men who had committed violence and wanted to change. 


For me becoming violent was only a way to respond to life with the tools that I was given. It wasn't till I worked on myself that I learned that what I experienced was anything but normal. It has often been described as some of the worst situations that a child can be born into. Yet I am here, and no longer violent due to addressing the pain so I know longer hurt others, and rehabilitated because of such.  


I hope that the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office can see the value in having once deemed “violent men” home to help be part of the process of change for a safer community. I hope that the policy decision to take away people death row status, grows into pathways of freedom instead of life without the possibility of parole. I hope that District Attorney Jeff Rosen expands the use of his discretion into the direction of giving once violent men a second chance to come home and repair any damage left behind by their absence. What better way to create a safer community than to empower those who once were part of the harm an active place in repairing it.

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