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Justine’s sophomore year

“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.” –Judge Steven Burns

Her name was Justine. His name was Tony*.

Justine and Tony figured that they would be good partners in a lucrative business: selling marijuana. Justine already smoked to ease her mind from the dreadful visions brought on by psychosis, a severe mental disorder she had suffered from since she was 16 years old.


She was a sophomore at Nebraska University, where she studied forensic science.

Her business plan was easy enough; get the supply either from people obtaining weed from Colorado or with bitcoins on the Silk Road, have it sent to Tony’s house in discreet packaging, weigh it out, package it and sell. Tony and Justine generally stuck to selling to their friend group.

Recreational weed wasn’t legal in Nebraska, so trust was everything.

Justine felt safe with her clientele, one of whom was a customer and friend named Andrew*. Andrew had bought weed from Justine before. They even smoked together a couple of times. He texted her one day, asking if he could pass on a friend and client. Justine agreed to him sharing her phone number.

So he did.

RELATED: Politicians who have admitted to trying drugs push for harsh drug sentences

Andrew’s friend JJ* wanted half an ounce of weed. Justine only had ounce bags. She weighed the supply at Tony’s house and sold JJ the ounce at a discounted price.

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 was quickly reminded why she didn’t sell to strangers. She could feel something off about JJ. He told her that he was a college student, going to school for a degree in criminal justice but taking some time off from school.

She only sold to him one time.

Justine was going through a private battle, finally going to a doctor and seeking help. She had received medication, and with it came a lifestyle change. Justine was ready to get out of the business with Tony. She also threw her pipes away, ready to give up smoking. Around the time of her decision, she had heard of a friend who had gotten arrested by an undercover police officer. She was happy that she had managed to get out.

Then she heard a knock on her door.

Justine heard a roommate answer and speak with a man for a bit. The conversation was soon over and the door was closed. Her roommate told her that a large man left his number for Justine. She didn’t know what to make of it.

Are you interested in making a deal?

Justine texted the unknown number, asking whose it was and how they came about her address. She didn’t get much of a response beyond, “Are you interested in making a deal?”

The situation was none too subtle, and she had assumed that he was an undercover police officer. She had contemplated meeting him in person to tell him that selling drugs was no longer her life. She instead texted him to let him know that she was no longer a seller, as it was the truth. But Justine did not know that it was too late. She had already sold an ounce to an undercover officer, JJ.

RELATED: How mandatory minimums have created rising prison populations in the U.S.

Justine was in class the day after she sent the text, when she received a call from a number she did not recognize.

“Hello, is this Justine LaViolette?” It was Nathan from the narcotics division at the police department. He told her that some officers needed to speak with her, and that she was to go back to her room immediately.

She texted her brother following the phone call. Her feelings were numb. The full weight of that phone call would not hit her until later.

“Justine,” said a man wearing a black beanie, who was waiting outside of her door with a few other officers.

She responded, “Yeah, that’s me.”

“Want to know how we knew it was you?” The man showed her a photocopied picture of her from Facebook, proud of his work.

“Okay” she said, slightly irritated. Justine had never been arrested, but she figured that there was only one route she could possibly take.

She opened the door to let the tiny congregation inside.

The officers asked to search her room. She agreed, knowing that she was not in possession of anything illegal. The only suspicious items in her room were the numerous plastic bags she kept to collect insects for her entomology lab projects. She felt violated regardless. The officers were emptying out her purses, picking through her dirty laundry, dumping drawers on the ground. She repeatedly denied that she was in possession of drugs, and she was telling the truth. The police never found anything.

Justine’s phone was taken away by one officer. Another placed metal handcuffs on her wrist. Embarrassed, she asked to be escorted out the back door. He kindly complied. In the car, they realized that they had met each other at a football game the year before. Unlike the officers who had searched her room, this one was caring. He told her that she seemed ambitious and hoped that she would be able to move on after this moment.

The ride was over and Justine was taken into a facility. Her strip search showed her that the humiliation was not yet over. She had to bend over, legs spread, while a female officer examined her body cavities. She was handed scrubs once the search was complete. She wasn’t wearing underwear or a bra. She was taken to a small holding room and elected to sit on the bench inside.

Nathan picked her up from the room and interrogated her. He told her that her case would benefit from his cooperation and that she would be released sooner. If she wouldn’t cooperate, they’d make sure to give her a difficult time. She felt pressured under the weight of their threats.

Justine told the truth about Tony and their business together. She was nervous, so she couldn’t recall every detail. But she did what she could.

RELATED: A coalition of unlikely allies have teamed up to do what the White House won’t on criminal justice reform

Her phone was presented to her, and she was forced to give the passcode. In all that time, no one had Mirandized her.

She was allowed back to the tiny room following the interrogation. Someone brought her a phone, and she called her brother and her roommate. She was allowed more than one call.

Several hours later she was taken from the holding room, handed a bin with supplies, re-handcuffed and escorted to a jail cell.

Strange faces stared at her when she walked in.

(*Names have been changed for privacy)

(** Imprisonment dependent on enforcement of mandatory minimum sentencing)


Justine’s junior 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.

RELATED: Politicians who have admitted to trying drugs push for harsh drug sentences

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.

RELATED: How mandatory minimums have created rising prison populations in the U.S.

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.

Bonnie Kristian writes, there were others like Sadek: “Rachel HoffmanKevin D’SouzaJames HawkesLawrence Chapa,—the list goes on.”

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.


Justine’s senior 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.

RELATED: Politicians who have admitted to trying drugs push for harsh drug sentences

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.”

RELATED: What the next administration may mean for the future of reform

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.

Sincerely,

Justine LaViolette

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.


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.


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