Read about Justine’s sophomore year and junior year.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…” –“Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Bronte
The summer between Justine’s junior and senior year still consisted of monthly court dates and an eight-hour drive between St. Louis and Lincoln. Her parents remained as supportive as ever. By the time senior year rolled around, Justine’s extended family was well aware of her situation. It was embarrassing, and she hated having to explain it continuously, but some of her aunts and uncles were kind enough, and she had always stressed that she was responsible for her actions.
Senior year was set to be a long one, as Justine was seeking to earn a major and a minor. But there was something more important on her mind: Justine’s sentencing date was set for that September, just a few days before she turned 21.
And at last, the dreaded day finally came.
The scene was different than her bail hearing. Justine was accompanied by her parents, grandmother, some close friends and her boyfriend. She was thankful for her support system. Justine had also submitted a letter to Judge Steven Burns, the man who would be sentencing her, in which she explained her work with an on-campus politics group called Young Americans for Liberty, the job she had with a lab, an art business that she had started and her involvement in school. She also had character witness letters from the Dean of Judicial and Student Affairs, some of her professors, family friends and relatives.
Justine felt as ready as she could, but she would quickly find that her preparations meant very little to Judge Burns.
After giving her a drawn out speech about how she needed to turn her life around, something Justine thought her letter would have showed she was already doing, Judge Burns handed down a sentence of three years’ probation. Probation meant that she couldn’t vote, drink or do drugs, go to bars, leave the state, or touch or own a firearm. She would need to request permission to leave the country and complete drug testing at least twice a week in the early morning. Justine’s lawyer made a comment after about the questionable lecture. Justine was just relieved that she didn’t have to go to jail.
For the rest of the fall semester, Justine faithfully complied with her probation. She would call to see if her group was scheduled for drug testing every single morning at 6 – Justine had to pee in a cup in front of others. Her probation officer saw the effort that she was making. After a few months, he noted that the probation was taking a toll on her health. By that time, Justine had her personal battle sorted out, but she still had anxiety. As both the probation and the semester continued, her anxiety only became worse.
Justine was tired of the anxiety. When the spring semester rolled around, she decided to do something about it.
Justine was talented and was really invested in liberty and making sure what happened to her wouldn't happen to anyone else.
That’s when Anthony showed up. Justine was heavily involved with on-campus organization Young Americans for Liberty, and Anthony was the Regional Director for her area. At the time, YAL was doing an activism event called “Incarceration Nation” to highlight the severe pitfalls within the criminal justice system. Anthony encouraged Justine to seek a Washington, D.C.-based internship through the Charles Koch Institute’s Koch Internship Program (KIP). When asked why later, Anthony said that he pushed the internship because Justine “was talented and was really invested in liberty and making sure what happened to her wouldn’t happen to anyone else.”
Justine sent in an application. She even disclosed her criminal history. And to her excitement, she was accepted.
Justine’s probation still required her to get permission to travel. After congratulating her, her probation officer told her to write a letter to Judge Burns requesting to live in D.C. in order to further her education through the internship. Such a distance would require her probation be amended. Justine’s therapist and the Dean of Judicial and Student Affairs helped her come up with a letter. In the letter, Justine offered to do community service hours at a local drug and alcohol rehab clinic that had an art therapy program in exchange for the internship. Her probation officer also submitted his own letter to the judge supporting her request.
Some weeks went by, and Justine had been accepted into another internship program through the Bill of Rights Institute, an educational nonprofit (the KIP internship program partnered with various libertarian and conservative organizations, meaning that Justine also had to seek an internship with one of those organizations), but Justine still had not heard anything from Judge Burns. She checked in with her probation officer every couple days, hoping to learn of a final decision.
Eventually, Justine couldn’t wait any longer.
Contacting Judge Burns’ officer herself, Justine finally got her answer. The bailiff emailed Justine the final decision. What she read broke her heart. From the email:
The defendant has requested her probation be modified. The application is denied. There is nothing in the order of probation which would prevent the defendant from serving people at the [rehabilitation clinic] if she feels so inclined. Her other requests are not within the realm of possibilities for amendment at this time.
Justine felt devastated. This was the same judge who had lectured her about turning her life around during her sentencing, despite her efforts to do so already. Justine had to inform KIP and the Bill of Rights Institute that her judge denied her travel request. She said that both organizations were “incredibly nice” about the turn of events. Justine ended up traveling home for the summer instead.
But all was not lost.
Later in the year, Justine was offered a position with Concerned American Voters, a Super-PAC formed to assist Senator Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) presidential bid. The position that had opened up was located in Iowa, only three hours from Lincoln.
Justine was thankful, as she only had to renew her travel permit every 30 days, thanks to the distance. This request was made through her probation officer, not the judge, and he was more than willing to help. Justine got her internship.
A year later, Justine got even bigger news.
Many things had changed since her sophomore year of college. Judge Burns had announced his retirement nearly halfway through 2016, Justine had adopted a therapy cat named Tod, and she had taken more criminal justice classes. However, The most important change was a law that had recently been passed by the state of Nebraska regarding early probation. The requirements were simple enough; one would have had to have served three-fourths of their sentence, paid their fines and displayed good behavior.
Justine met all of those requirements.
Her probation officer submitted a report of her actions, and Justine wrote a letter to a judge:
Dear Judge Burns:
I have been successful throughout my time on probation. I have never given a positive test, and abstained from substances successfully.
I have worked hard to keep my life together, and I think I have done well. I became more active in my college department, and became a student ambassador. I also tutored a high school student and worked in several labs on campus. I graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with two degrees in Entomology and Forensic Science, with a minor in Philosophy. I was able to get a research job immediately after graduating. I attend therapy once a week, and see a psychiatrist for medication management. I volunteer for my church in the children’s department as well. I think I have grown quite a bit during my time on probation, and have been a law-abiding citizen.
I have surrounded myself with positive influences, and have avoided people with questionable behavior.
If given the chance to complete probation early, I know I will continue to succeed. I recently accepted two internships, one with the Missouri Botanical Gardens as an insect keeper, and one with the St. Louis Zoo in their education department. I have worked hard to keep myself on track, and will continue to do so.
The documents were sent, and Justine prepared herself to wait up to two weeks for a response. The response came in four days.
Justine was granted an early release from her probation. She was free.
Justine said that she was thankful for her family, her close friends, her boyfriend, the Dean of Judicial and Student Affairs, Anthony and Young Americans for Liberty.
If given the chance to complete probation early, I know I will continue to succeed.
She has also accepted her actions as her own.
Justine successfully turned her life around, learning very quickly from her mistakes. She desired to change, even when the criminal justice system stood in her way.
Justine’s story is not uncommon. There are many like her who find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system because of an indiscriminate War on Drugs. Their stories warrant being heard.
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.