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U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate

In America, the sentence never ends. With a multitude of “collateral consequences” to face, there are many reasons for someone released from prison to either lie about their criminal history or try to avoid it. In reality, to develop an upstanding citizen lifestyle, you need to find work, secure a place to live, and get involved with the community.

But, if you're barred from employment, barred from school or licensing, barred from housing, barred from voting, and barred from volunteering in your kids’ activities… the people who create these barriers force the formerly incarcerated to live a criminal lifestyle in order to survive.

Anita McLemore is a mother overcoming addiction. Anyone who has been there, personally or as friend or family, knows that there are bumps in the road… and once in a while that person has to catch a break. McLemore had the “luck” of living in Mississippi, one of 10 states that have an outright ban on SNAP and TANF benefits for people with felony records. The other 40 states have laws mostly banning only those who do not comply with their releases, in other words, taking into account their current behavior.

But in her attempt to get a break, and get food stamps for her two children, this working mom lied and did not check the box regarding her criminal history. She likely would have gotten food stamps in Tennessee, Florida, and Louisiana… in Mississippi she gets three years prison time, after pleading guilty.

(Word to the wise: never plead guilty, nor let your client do so, and throw yourself on the mercy of the court. A plea “bargain” is a contract that requires something in return. Her federal public defender, Omodare Jupiter, should be ashamed, if nothing else.)

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate bypassed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that would have restricted the sentence to two to eight months (and perhaps probation). These are the same guidelines that judges claimed, for two decades, kept them from giving lesser sentences to modest drug possession cases. Judge Wingate also recently denied McLemore’s request for a two-month stay of execution, so she could have additional time to prepare her children for this transition.

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Anita McLemore paid back the $4,367. Her biggest mistake, clearly, is not working on Wall Street or for a mortgage broker. If she had a college degree and wore a suit to work, she would likely have avoided prosecution altogether. On the same day she was sentenced for her $4,367 crime, six people involved in a multi-million dollar mortgage fraud scheme received less time than Anita McLemore.

Presidents Bush and Obama combined couldn't fill a single cell block with those incarcerated for the massive frauds that resulted in the economic meltdown that currently holds so much political currency. And amidst this meltdown, ironically, the federal government will spend approximately $500,000 to prosecute and incarcerate McLemore. And most ironic of all: now her two children are eligible for state and federal assistance, as their caregiver could apply for the same food stamps their mother was ineligible to receive.

After eight years as a prosecutor, Judge Wingate was confirmed as a judge (for life) in 1985, and has been the Chief Justice of his district since 2003. As the first African-American judge in the history of Mississippi, this Reagan appointee receives numerous awards from the NAACP and other groups that fight for diversity. For an interesting account of Justice Wingate, who has been accused of corruption and partisanship, see a 2007 profile in Harper’s Magazine.

Ultimately, what "We the People" must understand is that the Incarceration Nation does not consist of ten million evil people under government supervision. There are indeed people whose greed and malice impacts others, and sometimes on a massive scale, but many of them never set foot in a courtroom.

The notion that the cages of America were built for people like Anita McLemore holds more truth than most want to believe. And the criminal justice system far too often endeavors to ensure that the ripples of a criminal conviction never stop; they are amplified, affecting people’s children and their children's children. McLemore’s “crime,” was not an action but an omission… with the goal of getting bread.

Wingate, on the other hand, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the collective tax base and disrupted a family so that the most severe punishment could be inflicted upon Anita McLemore and her family. It is time to overturn Mississippi’s ban on food stamps to mothers like McLemore, stop the systemic discrimination against those with records, and to question the motivations of this federal judge (and others).

bruce reilly

Bruce Reilly