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Rethinking Mandatory Prison Sentences: The Lesson from One Convicted Man Who Turned His Life Around Without Serving His 13 Years

Because of a clerical error, Mike Anderson lived free for more than a decade. Should this rehabilitated man have served his full sentence?

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The following piece was originally published on Equal Voice News.

The story of  Cornealious “Mike” Anderson, the convicted Missouri man who, because of a state Department of Corrections error, lived free for the 13 years of his prescribed prison sentence, sparked a national debate: Should a rehabilitated man be sent to prison?

As Anderson awaited a judge’s decision about his fate, some argued he must fulfill his original sentence, while others argued he should not be responsible for the state’s incompetence and that his 13 years of good citizenship should serve as reparation to society.

On Monday, May 5, 2014, the judge declared Anderson – who has four children, owns a carpentry contracting company, volunteers at his church and coaches Little League – a “good man” and a free man.

The story of Anderson is a modern day American parable. The incarcerated man who, through mistaken or divine happenstance, was allowed to honor a promise that echoes in courtrooms every day: “Just give me the chance of freedom, and I will prove I can do good.”

The Anomaly of the Anderson Case

Although Anderson’s case was an anomaly, it uniquely raises a fundamental question regarding our nation’s sentencing laws. In a time of decreasing crime rates and depleted public budgets, and considering the decimation of families and communities brought about by mass incarceration and mandatory sentencing, what is the societal value of locking up people for such significant amounts of time?

Mike Anderson offers an actual case study that not only is rehabilitation possible without a lengthy prison sentence, but that the state actually gains from limiting incarceration periods.

Empirically, the case shows nothing would have been gained by keeping Anderson in prison for 13 years; in fact, there were measurable gains by him being free during this period. He committed no crime while free and was not in the care of the state, thus absolving the state of a 13-year financial burden.

A 2012  Vera Institute of Justice study calculates that the cost of imprisoning an inmate in Missouri is $22,350 per year.

That means the clerical error that resulted in Anderson’s freedom saved the state almost $300,000, while Anderson contributed to the state and national economies as a job creator and taxpayer, and being a stakeholder in the community while creating a stable home for his family.

What is more telling is imagining the scenario had there been no error and Anderson had done his time in prison. Not only would the state be out $300,000 and Anderson’s loved ones, church and community have lost his contributions, but Anderson himself would have re-entered society after 13 years in prison with no job, no community or family and left only with the proven trauma of incarceration.

The irony is that the likelihood of Anderson’s re-offending would have increased dramatically if he had been in prison. Studies show the rate of re-offense for those who have come out of prison to be nearly 70 percent.

The Shifting Tide of Mandatory Sentencing

In many cases, mandatory minimum sentencing laws cause extended lockups. Had Anderson been convicted of armed robbery in my home state of California, for example, his minimum sentence would have been 12 years – a mitigated two-year sentence for the robbery charge and a consecutive 10-year sentence for the firearm.

Even if the judge had had the ability to intuit Anderson’s future positive contributions to society, with the state’s mandatory sentencing laws, he or she would not have had any discretion to remove or lessen the sentence.