This past weekend SXSW tackled a topic that has become a hot topic around the United States: criminal justice reformation. With the recent news of rising tensions and exposure of police interactions with the public, as well as the release of popular documentaries such as “13th”, criminal justice reformation has been a topic on the minds of the American people as well as politicians. The SXSW Conference panel on Saturday titled “Artist to Advocate: Fighting for Criminal Justice” featured formerly incarcerated Weldon Angelos (former producer of Extravagant Records, who also worked with Snoop Dogg), moderator Vikrant Reddy (Charles Koch Institute), and Mark Holden (Koch Industries). The panel set out to flesh out the story of Weldon and his extreme 55 year prison sentence he received for selling a pound and a half of marijuana while legally possessing a gun during the exchanges. The whole story will be told in a soon to be released documentary, “The Sentenced” (release date unknown). Weldon had no prior convictions, but regardless was given the absolutely maximum sentence. Through public outcry and the high profile people associated with this story, Weldon was released after 13 years. His story is only one example of the many prisoners caught in the system and unable to get proper representation or trials, and as a result, unnecessary prison time.
The panel covered a number of topics from the perspective of an artist, lawyer, and victim. Snoop Dogg, the artist on the panel, spoke less than others, but his words came from a place of empathy and hope. “Now that I have a voice, I need to use it,” Snoop made sure to emphasize. The lawyer, Mark Holden, did most of the talking and used his knowledge of numbers and facts to back up the strong emotions on the stage. He also made sure to emphasize the passion Koch Industries has for prison reform, which he acknowledged you would never suspect. Weldon gave his story and answered questions from the perspective of the victim who experienced the disparity of the current criminal justice system. The panel touched topics such as collateral consequences of overbearing sentences, as well as the current criminal justice system being a barrier to opportunity to those who need opportunity the most.
The panel discussed the emergency need and desperation of the reformation of the criminal justice and prison systems, but at the very end, Holden mentioned the need for education within prison (and most importantly before prison) but also a number of programs within prisons that are attempting rehabilitation and teaching life-long job skills to reduce recidivism as well as empower the prisoner. As Merit Partners likes to say, we want our employees to leave better than they arrived, and leave with more than they came with. We believe that rehabilitation will ultimately have a better, more positive impact on the prisoner than just “doing their time”, and it’s great to know we’re not the only ones who believe this. As Holden said, “We talk a lot about people having second chances, but most never have a first chance.”