Read about Justine’s sophomore year.
“The worst evils which mankind ever had to endure were inflicted by bad governments.” -Ludwig von Mises
Justine tripped in the oversized, jail-provided sandals as she climbed the stairs to her cell. She made it to her new residence and changed into her inmate’s uniform. She finally had underwear, but she tried not to think of how many women had worn the undergarments before her. It was time for Justine to adjust to her new home.
She walked to the common area of the jail and introduced herself to some of the less intimidating women. “Hi, what are your names?” she asked, as though they were new classmates. The women were kind and gave their names with amusement. Some of the women were in jail for assault or drug dealing. Others were cocaine and heroin addicts, locked away on possession charges.
Jail wasn’t without its unnerving moments. Justine received several compliments about her eyebrows and innocent eyes, and there was a way around the bad moments.
She attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It was that or stay in her cell. Some of the meetings consisted of reading, and she was one of the better readers in the group. She was complimented for her skills, despite being one of the youngest in the group. Though the jail did not have many educational resources, Justine filled the role of reading what she could when other inmates asked. Some women asked her to read Psalms from the Bible, so she did. Her own favorite was Psalm 27:14:
Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the Lord!
She would need that to carry her through the next couple of months.
The bail hearing was set for the day after Justine was thrown in jail. She had called her father to update him and provided a list of numbers and names from various friends who would help her post bail. She remembers how her heart sunk when she faced her father’s disappointment. She felt like a burden to her parents.
The hearing didn’t help calm her. She met other young women who were crack dealers, one on her fourth offense. Some of them were so far gone into the system, drugs or depression that they appeared hopeless. Justine did not want this for her life. But she did felt more empathy than she ever had for the women around her.
Justine did not see anyone she recognized in the courtroom. She panicked as she was escorted back to her cell to wait out the jail’s impending 36-hour lockdown.
Around 10:30 p.m., the intercom announced that someone had bailed her out. Heart full of relief, Justine signed out and changed back into her regular clothes. She greeted her friends with tears in her eyes, as they had put money together to bail her out. She quickly withdrew funds from her bank account to pay them back, and they graciously drove her to her apartment.
A friend offered up their phone, and Justine finally contacted her parents. Justine described them in that moment as forgiving, disappointed and not angry. She told her parents everything, even about her personal battle. They encouraged her to find a therapist while they found a lawyer.
Sophomore year ended in a blur, and Justine went back home to her parents in St. Louis, Missouri.
But Justine was still broken. The summer between sophomore and junior year wasn’t any easier, as she was waiting for her sentencing date. Her personal battle only became worse, and she began to feel like a burden on her parents. Thoughts about suicide led her to self-harm.
Her personal battle only became worse, and she began to feel like a burden on her parents. Thoughts about suicide led her to self-harm.
Justine found herself in the woods in the middle of the night with a razor. She called a friend to tell them she couldn’t live anymore. Her friend consoled Justine, helped convince her otherwise and called 911 after she got off the phone.
The police showed up around midnight, after Justine had gone back home. She was told that she would have to go with them to the hospital, or she would face arrest. Her mom offered up a compromise; she would drive Justine to the hospital while the officers followed.
The hospital visit was tame. There were some questions about health history – Justine had since stopped taking the medication because she hated their effect. Her mom brought her apple juice, a comfort drink, and played games with her on her iPad. Justine’s mother was very supportive, hugging her in the rough moment.
A few hours went by and Justine was released. Upon her release, however, she was forced to sign up for outpatient rehab. The woman at her initial interview said that she was dependent on alcohol and marijuana. That was far from the truth, as Justine had given up smoking and had never taken drinking to a concerning level. With a good deal of work, Justine finally got out of the substance abuse program and into one more suited for her negative thoughts. The second group was much more effective, and Justine also saw a therapist while she was there.
Her schedule was busy that summer. There was several of weeks of group and individual therapy for five hours each day. There was also a monthly (and mandatory) eight hour drive between St. Louis and Lincoln, Nebr., where school was. During each trip, Justine would make a five-minute appearance in court so that her lawyer could appeal for more time with her case.
Her lawyer finally told her about the plea bargain.
Justine was initially charged with a Class II felony.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reports that a first offender in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana in the state of Nebraska faces a maximum fine of $300 with no incarceration time. The sale of any amount carries the weight of 1-20 years** in prison and a $25,000 fine. If a seller operates business within 1,000 feet of a school, they face 1-50 years.**
The latter is considered a Class II felony, the same felony reserved for “robbery, human trafficking, assault in the first degree, and sexual assault in the first degree.”
Justine’s sentence was so harsh because she sold on school property, and the amount sold was rounded up and listed as an ounce – she later read a report that she had actually been a gram or two short of that amount. Her plea bargain offered a reduced sentence to a Class IIA felony. The requirement for minimum time served was removed, with the maximum time being lowered to 20 years in prison.
So Justine had two choices: serve a longer sentence or sign a proffer agreement to lower her sentence. A proffer agreement meant that Justine would have to provide information to the government in exchange for a lower sentence. That proffer agreement defined the fall semester of her junior year of college.
The first part of her proffer agreement included telling a police officer everything she remembered about her contacts and clients, how much she sold to each and how she went about business. The first person she gave up was her old partner, Tony*. This one was easy, since she said Tony had once drugged her and taken advantage of her in the past. But the other part of her agreement wasn’t so easy.
Justine was turned into a police informant. This type of arrangement was dangerous and could lead to death if she were discovered.
As Rare once reported, North Dakota college student Andrew Sadek, 20, was caught selling $80 of marijuana. He was interviewed without a lawyer and was told that he could either go undercover for a reduced sentence or face a $20,000 fine and up to 40 years in prison. Sadek agreed to wear the wire. He disappeared after a couple of undercover buys. He turned up dead months later, floating in a river with a gunshot wound in his head.
Matt Sander, another student at the same school, was faced with a similar decision. The agreement did not sound right to Sander, and he called upon his right to an attorney. The same officer who sat down with Sadek told Sanders that “A lawyer cannot help you right now.” Threatened with up to 30 years in prison, Sander walked out of the room. His mom and a lawyer worked his sentence down to two years of probation and $800 in court fines. It was a decision that might have saved his life.
Justine was paired with a small team of undercover officers. One of them was a former student in a forensic science classes, whose exams Justine had graded as a teaching assistant. But the familiarity ended there.
She tried to find bad people, like those who sold a lot more than marijuana. She and another undercover officer would text a drug dealer from a phone., and Justine would then go to buy the drugs from them. Though she had no personal connection to the three or so drug dealers she had to turn in, the process did not feel good at all.
Her cooperation, schooling and job were enough for her to stop informing earlier than planned. For that, she was relieved. Throughout the process, she still had to appear in court once a month, so that her lawyer could extend the sentencing date. The prosecutor wouldn’t budge to allow Justine to do a diversion program or go to drug court.
Justine’s lawyer continued trying to get her charge reduced in the spring semester of her junior year, but the prosecutor continued to resist.
In the meantime, Justine had to meet with the Dean of Judicial and Student Affairs at her school, a stipulation of her selling on campus. They met every week. It was that or be suspended or expelled, as is the norm according to the school’s policy. The dean was helpful to Justine, as he mentored her and counseled with her, making Justine’s time as a student less stressful. Meetings also consisted of fun discussions about politics, religion, her personal battle and her legal battle.
She found that she would need her allies from junior year very soon.
*Names have been changed for privacy
The history of the War on Drugs
This story is part one of our feature on Justine and her journey through the criminal justice system in Nebraska. Her story is a part of our series”Pardon,” examining the state of nonviolent criminal justice reform as the Obama presidency comes to a close.