Under pressure to be "tough on crime," prosecutors can shape harsh sentences.
Before he was Dr. Stanley Andrisse, Stanley was a young teen slipping into the legal system. Though he wasn't the first of his friends or siblings to get handcuffed, he might have been one of the youngest. The first time Stanley was arrested, he was 14. Soon he had his first felony conviction for selling drugs.
Stanley grew up in the Ferguson, Missouri, area—the same Ferguson that would gain national attention after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. In high school, Stanley earned decent grades and played several sports, but he received little guidance about college or career choices.
After high school, Stanley went to college on a football scholarship. Then, in his early 20s, he was back in a courtroom, facing three separate felony charges after getting caught in a drug raid.
Because Stanley had already been convicted on two prior charges, the prosecutor pushed to have Stanley put away for as long as possible—even for life. Her presentation in the courtroom depicted Stanley as a career criminal and a threat to society.
Choices made by prosecutors play a key role in criminal cases, including:
- Filing charges.
- Offering a plea deal.
- Recommending a sentence to the court.
And the impact of these choices is far-reaching. Ninety-five percent of all criminal cases end in a plea deal. Research shows that people who don't accept a plea deal often receive a harsher sentence (a trial penalty). Black Americans more often experience a harsher than average sentence, and they are also less likely to receive a plea agreement that includes a reduced sentence.
Beyond this, prosecutors are often judged as successful or unsuccessful based on their conviction rate—not on broader community safety metrics. Although many prosecuting attorneys are motivated by a desire to be restorative as they work toward a safer community, judging their performance by a conviction rate can influence them to ask for larger sentences, apply greater leverage, and stack charges.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
When many prosecutors are under pressure to be "tough on crime" at all costs, defendants can face unnecessarily harsh sentences.
"There was a lot of truth to the things [the prosecutor] was saying, the things that I had done," Stanley remembers. "But the painting of it—the way she stroked the brush—was that I was irreparable. There was no way to help me, guide me to a different place. [To the prosecutor] I was hopeless. … And because of that, I needed to be thrown away for life."
Sitting in the courtroom, Stanley questioned his own worth and potential.
"I internalized this: I am this monster," says Stanley. "Why did I do these things to myself, my family, the people that I hurt? Why would I do that?"
Stanley was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He says he only made it through because he had a support system back home. His family helped him discover what his prosecutor refused to see: his true potential.
While Stanley was incarcerated, his father went through two years of intensive hospitalizations and surgeries while fighting diabetes. His father's death devastated Stanley, and his experience sparked a new interest in studying diseases and medicine.
Stanley read his first scientific article in a prison cell.
"It was my way to escape prison," says Stanley. "I was physically in this cell, this prison cell, but my mind was deep inside human cells. I was 'traveling' through learning."
In prison, Stanley applied to several programs. Eventually, he attended biomedical graduate school at St. Louis University.
Dr. Stanley Andrisse is living proof that someone's past never has to define their future. He can't help but think about the millions of people behind bars in the U.S.—brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers—desperate for a second chance. He doesn't consider himself exceptional for having talents and skills.
And he believes there is more untapped potential behind bars right now.
Prison Fellowship® believes that a just process is integral to a successful, restorative criminal justice system. Prosecutors are assumed to play an important role in securing just penalties when people commit crimes. But this discretion shouldn't be outsized. With the power to sway the trajectory of someone's life, prosecutors must be held accountable and strive for nothing more, and nothing less, than justice.
As Stanley's story attests, a prosecutor influences more than a person’s sentence. A prosecutor has the power to shape the narrative about that person and their capacity to change, for better or worse. After his day in court, Stanley walked away thinking he might be an irreparable criminal with no hope for redemption, rather than who he was: a person with God-given dignity and potential.
NEVER TOO LATE
Stanley's book, From Prison Cells to PhD: It Is Never Too Late To Do Good, was released on Aug. 17, 2021. The title comes from something his dad used to say: "He would tell me this often, as I was getting deeper entangled into the system. This theme is that it's never too late to be that person that you hope to be. Change is possible."
Facing felony charges in a courtroom, Stanley was told he had no hope for change. Prosecutorial discretion could have denied him a future. Today, he is a husband and father, an endocrinologist and professor at Howard University College of Medicine, and the founder and executive director of From Prison Cells to PhD. The organization serves people from adverse circumstances, changing lives through advocacy, mentoring, and policy change.
Stanley says, "If we can see people as people, in the totality of who they are, and this idea that everyone has potential and value in this world, we would never lock people up for the lengths of time that we do."
WATCH: THE ROLE OF THE PROSECUTOR
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