I used a gun to rob four banks and commit a carjacking in the Lansing area when I was in my early 20s, crimes that were prosecuted in federal court because they involved federally insured financial institutions. No one was hurt and no property was damaged. I turned down a plea deal of seven years, but was convicted at trial of all charges.
I was sentenced to 10 years for my robberies and car jacking. And because I used a gun in committing those crimes, I was sentenced to another 105 years in prison.
That’s decades longer than the average federal jail term for murder, narcotics trafficking or even child molestation. The judge who sentenced me said it was "without question, the longest sentence that I’ve ever imposed, other than one that said natural life."
I no doubt deserved punishment. But I shouldn’t have to die behind bars for my crimes.
Death in prison, though, is my fate unless the U.S. Congress passes the SAFE Justice Act of 2017. Introduced to the U.S. Senate in October 2017 by U.S. Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., and a bipartisan group of 15 reform-minded lawmakers, the bill would reverse years of damage to thousands of men and women, like me, who were prosecuted for weapons charges under one of the harshest and most widely disparaged laws on the books — Section 924(c) of Title 18 of the U.S. Code.
Under that section, the use of a gun during a crime of violence or drug trafficking offense is separately punishable by a minimum of five years for a first conviction and a whopping 25 years for any "second or subsequent" violation. It also requires that those prison terms run consecutive to — that is, after — the punishment for any underlying crime.
Section 924(c)’s "second or subsequent" language sounds like it’s intended for recidivists. Brandish a gun while selling drugs? Serve five extra years. Come out of prison and commit the same offense a second time? Serve 25 extra years. Do it a subsequent time? Twenty-five more years.
Based on a labored interpretation of the phrase "second or successive," though, in 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that multiple convictions in the same proceeding — like my four bank robberies and carjacking, all of which were charged simultaneously — are subject to those enhanced penalty provisions.
For me, it was the sentencing equivalent of a two-by-four to the head. It meant five years for the firearm used in my first robbery, 25 years each for the firearm used in my second, third and fourth robberies and 25 more years for the firearm used in my carjacking, all running back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back and on top of the 10-year prison term I received for the bank robberies and carjacking themselves. I have no chance at early release because Congress eliminated parole back in 1987.
Like all mandatory minimum penalties, this law transfers power to prosecutors to a dangerous degree; they alone can effectively determine sentences by deciding to file charges carrying stiff mandatory minimum prison terms, sometimes stacked on top of one another. Judges regularly complain that their hands are tied by prosecutors’ charging decisions. Nowhere else in the American criminal justice system are judges and juries so powerless.
And mandatory minimums forsake rehabilitation in favor of retribution as the primary purpose of punishment. Because of their inherent arbitrariness and severity, mandatory minimum prison terms undermine the public’s confidence in the baseline fairness of the American criminal justice system.
It’s absurd to think that lawmakers envisioned treating defendants like me as recidivists, subject to sentences far longer than first-time offenders, simply because they were found guilty of multiple offenses in a single case.
Mandatory minimums have helped to fuel a federal prison population explosion — from approximately 25,000 in 1980 to close to 184,000 today — with its consequential financial costs, ruined lives and broken families.
The SAFE Justice Act of 2017 and its Senate counterpart, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (which passed committee in mid-February), would bring much needed reform to Section 924(c)’s harsh penalties. Both bills make crystal clear that it is a recidivist statute, as it was always intended to be.
But only the SAFE Justice Act of 2017 makes the change fully retroactive, and that's what would give inmates like me the possibility, but not the certainty, of having our sentences reduced if we demonstrate that we no longer pose a threat to society.
So far I have served more than 15 years in federal prison. I’ve worked hard to rehabilitate myself and overcome the disease of criminality. I know I’ll have to serve more time. But, at some point, I should get a second chance.
Ian Owens, Register No. 11142-040, is serving a 115-year prison term at USP Pollock, a high-security federal penitentiary in Pollock, La. Owens, who grew up in Lansing, has a projected release date of Dec. 31, 2102. Harlan Protass is a criminal defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, where he teaches about sentencing.