Give mom a (first) chance

No. 13 LaVonne Roach and her family

No. 13 LaVonne Roach and her family

South Dakota native LaVonne Roach, 50, a member of the Lakota Nation, has been recommended repeatedly to The Clemency Report as just the kind of gentle soul who deserves freedom from a 30-year meth sentence that makes no moral sense.

Those who know LaVonne talk of her kindness and intelligence as well as her spirited optimism and hard work while in prison for 17 years.

Read “See What I See,” a poem by LaVonne Arlene Roach

She has rebuilt herself from a pre-prison existence that is hard to fathom if you haven’t been there — an unremitting tale of alcohol, drugs, poverty, violence and  abuse starting at age 11

LaVonne doesn’t deserve a second chance. She needs a first chance — a first chance to live in peace, to care for her ailing parents, to love her children, to help care for grandchildren who hardly know her.

LaVonne’s kids

LaVonne’s case represents much that’s wrong and routine in the federal justice system today:

  •  multi-decade drug sentences based on things never said in court.
  •  conspiracy laws punishing abused women more than drug dealer husbands and boyfriends.
  •  extra decades punitively added to sentences of  people who believe they are innocent and go to trial.
Lavonne Roach at graduation

LaVonne Roach at graduation

The worst thing about today’s drug laws is that they are morally wrong, even by the standards of those who support drug prohibition.

Drug laws today are designed for cruelty not proportion. Today’s sentence lengths are designed to wreak havoc on poor and minority communities, to punish not just offenders but multiple generations of innocents.

What happens to LaVonne’s kids when mom is sent away for 30 years rather than, say, three years for her non-violent drug law violation? Drug war orphans is what happens.

The government’s “orphan creation” strategy ensures that young Clarissa, Edward and Priscilla will never have an intact family again. To test the policy’s wisdom, predict how that will turn out for the kids — and society.

The drug war is not a victimless crime.

Legal Reality 

LaVonne was a single parent, working two jobs, on food stamps, getting clothing vouchers from Goodwill, when she was charged with being a leader of a multi-million dollar meth conspiracy in Rapid City, S.D. It was utter nonsense, a comical claim, except in the only place that it mattered: the legal world of phony labels and pretend reality.

In the court system today, “legal reality” does not correspond with “true reality.” Paupers are frequently labeled as drug world “leaders” and “kingpins” because conspiracy law lets prosecutors invent the size of the crime.

Apply conspiracy law to Walmart and you’d have prisons full of cashiers doing 30-year sentences. They would be described as key members of a sophisticated multi-billion dollar, worldwide consumer goods trafficking ring.

The cashier’s guilt is easy to prove. Look how much money each she  handled — every day, for years! And, oh my, look at the weight of the milk, Pampers and dog food they sold! And the sophistication of the technology!

LaVonne holding her grandkids in prison.

This is how drug prosecutions work today.

In a fictional world, an impoverished single mom, a Native American exercising almost no authority over the world around her, is legally transformed into a supposedly important member of the powerful Walmart cartel.

Prosecutors determine the size of the criminal enterprise — a 1-store conspiracy ? an 11,000-store conspiracy? — and pick from a  thesaurus-worthy inventory of labels to describe the cashier’s supposed role.

A cashier who wants a trial — to prove her innocence or challenge an inaccurate role assigned to her — gets an extra 10 or 20 years in prison for the audacity of questioning prosecutorial omnipotence in controlling legal reality.

This gulf between “legal reality” and “true reality” is one reason minorities have less respect for the legal system than affluent whites, who seldom touch the criminal justice system and imagine that legal and true reality are pretty much aligned.

True Reality

What’s LaVonne’s reality?

I have been locked away for 17 years as my children grew. My family has suffered many hardships and deaths during that time.

I have a granddaughter who is older than my son was when I came to prison. My parents are old. My father is being placed in an old folks home because he broke his hip and has other issues (severe diabetes, dialysis, oxygen machine, going blind, heart problems, and an amputated leg.)

My mother has been having problems with her heart and is unable to care for my dad.

Nobody can really understand the hurt I feel knowing that they are suffering and I can’t help them because of bad choices I made in my life.

I prayed before my sentencing and prepared myself. Honestly, I never believed I would do this much time. I thought justice would prevail.

But here I sit 17 years later.


Meet LaVonne and her family (2000 and 2013)

Kylee is the toddler in the blue outfit in 2000 and the young woman in the white blouse in 2013.

Lavonne and her family (2000)

Back row: Marletta (LaVonne’s mom), Priscilla (LaVonne’s daughter), Daniel (LaVonne’s brother). Middle row: Kylee (granddaughter), LaVonne; Clarissa (daughter) Front: Edward (youngest son)

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