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Life Inside

When Justice Gets Personal

A judge examines the impact on those he sentences.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

“Are you Judge Bennett?”

Shopping in the grocery store last month, I spun around to see who was asking. It’s a question I am often asked, and I never know what range of emotions are behind it. As a federal judge in Sioux City, Iowa, for more than two decades, I have sent over 4,000 offenders to federal prison. Our community is small, and there is rarely a month that goes by where someone doesn’t approach me about a sentence I have given. It can happen at a grocery or hardware store, at a restaurant or park.

This man, 30-something, had his hand stretched out. He was smiling.

“Judge Bennett, it is so good to see you.”

He said that more than five years earlier I had given him a huge break at sentencing. The prosecutor had asked for more than a 180-month sentence for his crack cocaine conviction. But I had been impressed with the man’s solid work record and stable family ties, before he became a crack addict and small-time street dealer to feed his addiction. I gave him a 60-month sentence, lower than even his defense attorney had asked for.

It turned out my intuition wasn’t far off. In prison, he had participated in intensive drug treatment and parenting skills classes. He had learned how to work on heating and air conditioning systems, and had been able to find a job on the outside. Most important of all, he had a loving family. He insisted on going to find them in the aisles, so that I could meet them. As we all spoke, the man and I both shed tears of joy and gratitude. Before we left, I asked if I could give him a hug and he warmly embraced me.

It is never an easy task — nor should it be — to deprive someone of their liberty. In 1994, when I was a new judge, I told another judge that I found it difficult to sentence people. He tried to reassure me by saying, “Don’t worry, Mark, it will get much easier.” But it hasn’t, and I’ve always thought that if it does get easy, then it’s time to resign. The collective weight of all those sentences is almost impossible to explain.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve dealt with those feelings by visiting prisoners I’ve sentenced — more than 400 of them. For too many of them, I am the only visitor they have ever had. They tell me about prison life and their own efforts at rehabilitation. When I leave, I am alternately sad and inspired.

On the outside, I am regularly contacted by the families of those I sentence. It can be a daughter, son, spouse, sibling, parent, or grandparent. Often, I will agree to meet — in my chambers, or at a coffee house or donut shop — and explain why I gave the sentence I did. I view these meetings as part of my commitment to public service.

Of course, sometimes I have to explain that I am forced to hand down mandatory minimum sentences I find to be unjustly harsh. The War on Drugs has fallen more harshly on persons of color; even in lily-white Iowa, most offenders I sentence in drug cases are persons of color, and virtually all are poor.

Sentencing, even with all the comprehensive information judges have about individuals, is still an educated guesstimate about whether a judge’s decision is sufficient to protect the public and to fairly punish the offender. So I want to know what happens to those I sentence. Most of them are good people who make bad — sometimes really bad — decisions. But we are all capable of redemption.

Mark W. Bennett, who sits in the Northern District of Iowa, was appointed to the bench in 1994 by President Clinton.