By: CBC (Canada) The Canadian Press, May 11, 2014
His star-crossed participation in a stickup attempt in Reno, Nev., earned him 26 years in prison in an era of drastic change in U.S. justice policy, from the rise of the tough-on-crime approach to its more recent fall from favour.
Witherow shared his story during a conference in Washington, where there is bipartisan momentum behind a number of justice reforms designed to reduce prison costs and increase rehabilitation of inmates.
His initial plan, back then, was to tie down a jewelry store owner while one of his accomplices brandished a sawed-off shotgun. As it turned out, the store owner had a gun, too, and the plan went off the rails.
Witherow was eventually tracked down and sent to the slammer. Because of his seven prior convictions, mainly for robberies, he received an especially long sentence for attempted robbery with use of a weapon.
Longer sentences, services chopped.
This was in 1984.
When he arrived in the Nevada prison system, he recalls, prisoners were able to get out early for good behaviour, and some of his fellow inmates were getting college degrees. Witherow himself managed to turn his life around when he got paralegal training.
But he says things changed pretty quickly.
“It was just the start of the maybe-we-should-get-tough-on-crime era,” said Witherow, whose jailhouse training has helped him request pardons, push for better health care, and fight for sentencing reform as head of the Nevada chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, where he’s been involved since his 2010 release.
“It was all about tough on crime but nobody thought, ‘How we gonna pay for it?”‘
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