heartbreaking new reporton life sentences for nonviolent offenders features the story of a young dad who will likely die in prison because of three small-time thefts.
Patrick W. Matthews got life in prison in 2009, when he was just 22, for stealing a $US750 welding machine, some tools, and a roughly $US800 generator, according to court documents.
Matthews, who had been addicted to methamphetamine and heroin as a teen, got the harsh sentence under Louisiana’s Habitual Offender Law because of several prior convictions tied to a single burglary that happened when he was 17, according to the ACLU.
Matthews never spent a day in prison before the life sentence, and he had no history of violence. He says he was never warned that he could get life in prison if he burgled again after his conviction for stealing from a pawn shop and fruit stand with friends while he was high on meth as a teenager.
“I never in the world would’ve thought that could happen,” Matthews told the ACLU. “Made one mistake and was treated like a murderer.”
A Louisiana state appeals court rejected Matthews’ appeal in December 2010 in an opinion that showed little sympathy for the nonviolent father of two who struggled with addiction.
According to that opinion, Matthews and a co-conspirator named Jason Blackwell stole the welding machine from a Slidell, La. yard on April 16, 2009, the same day they stole some tools from another yard. The next day, they allegedly banged on the front windows of a home occupied by a woman named Michelle Parker before stealing a generator from her yard.
On appeal, Matthews’ defence characterised the burglaries as property crimes committed by an addict. Judge Vanessa Guidry-Whipple rejected that characterization, though, noting that “downward departures” from mandatory minimums should be made rarely.
“The trial testimony … indicates, in particular, the effect of the defendant’s crimes upon one of the victims, Michelle Parker, who was very distraught following the incident,” Judge Whipple wrote.
An appeals court judge named Page McClendon filed a separate opinion agreeing that Matthews’ case didn’t meet the “extraordinary” circumstances necessary to give him less time than the mandatory minimum. But she did offer this sympathetic caveat:
[T]he imposition of a life sentence for this particular defendant forever closes the door of hope, negates any chance of the defendant becoming a contributing member of society, and imposes an undue burden on the taxpayer, who is required to feed, house, and clothe him for life.
A life sentence also punishes his family members, including an 8-year-old named Blayton and a 6-year-old named Hayley. His mother, Cathy, says she told the ACLU that life in prison is essentially a death sentence.
“To see your child get life without parole at 22 years old has to be the most gut-wrenching feeling that you could ever feel,” she told the ACLU. “Because it’s like giving him a death sentence. Because there’s no life — no life for a man, with his children or his parents, or anybody else once they’re in there.”
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