E. Richard Webber, a federal judge in St. Louis, speaks out about sentencing, mass incarceration and the flaws of what he calls a justice system that sends “an endless line of African-American men to prison.”
While in St. Louis on an assignment for The New York Times a little over two years ago, I visited the nonprofit social services agency Better Family Life to witness an event billed as a novel attempt at preventing gun violence.
Better Family Life produces a number of programs aimed at prevention, victim aid, and prisoner re-entry for St. Louis, a city with a long history of some of the highest rates of homicide and other serious crime in the nation. At this particular event, the only one of its kind that Better Family Life has conducted, dozens of men convicted of federal gun offenses gathered in a chilly gymnasium to hear a series of speakers on the virtues of setting aside guns in neighborhood disputes. One of those speakers was a senior federal district judge, E. Richard Webber.
The reed-thin judge, 73 at the time, acted unlike any federal judge I had seen in my decades of covering the law. At one point, the judge, who is white, knelt before one of the men in the all-black audience to say how sorry he was for sending so many young black men to prison — and to drive home his main point. “I’m here to tell you that I care about you,” Webber told the crowd. Later, as I chatted with the judge, Webber mentioned a curious practice of his: to meet one-on-one with every person he ever sent to prison, as soon as they get released.
Recently, while working on another story about St. Louis violence and Better Family Life, I called Webber to ask him to talk more about his meetings with parolees. Webber, nominated to the bench by Bill Clinton in 1995 and, before that, a Missouri state judge, explained how he conducts the meetings, how they started, and what he hopes comes of them.
These are his own words, edited for clarity and brevity:
It all starts when I sentence someone. I try to say something positive about almost everyone. There’s five percent of the population that will never be helped, that needs to be in prison forever. They’re gonna hurt somebody if they’re out. So I’m not talking about that five percent. And I know who they are. But when I sentence somebody, I try—even though I don’t always believe it—I say, “You’re really smart. You should be taking classes. If I recommend GED and post-high school classes, will you take them while you’re in prison?” And of course they always say yes. But they do. And then they send me their certificates. So I have a good relationship with most of the prisoners I sentence when they come out.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t talk to someone that I’ve sentenced to prison who’s just getting out on supervised release. The Bureau of Prisons operates halfway houses, and so the person comes out of prison, goes into a halfway house for six months. And when they come out of prison and first enter the halfway house, they’re assigned a probation officer who monitors their activities in the halfway house. The probation officers all know that they have to bring ’em over to the courthouse.
I purposefully sit at the corner of the table, so I can be within 18 inches, face to face. I’ll just give you the mantra so you know exactly what it is. I say, “Please relax. You’re not in any trouble. The purpose of this is to try to convince you that I care about you, that I want to see you successfully complete supervised release. I want to explain to you that some of the things you hear in prison about probation officers are not true. Your officer here will do everything possible to help you and is not here to cause you any trouble.”
And then I give them a chance to speak.
You can just see them kind of melt down in the chair, actually. All of a sudden, their fear is gone. After these meetings, one or both of us is in tears. They say things like, “You’re the only person that ever cared about me,” which is kind of remarkable—to think that somebody who sent them to prison is the only one that ever cared about ’em. But they say that. And they say, “I’m not gonna disappoint you.” And for the most part they don’t. It’s been extraordinarily successful.
I like to look at myself as someone who is tough on crime, because I am saving the government a lot of money by not sending someone back to prison, and changing lives so they’re paying taxes and having a better life. And that’s what I end it on. I always say “I want you to have a better life than you’ve ever experienced. It never occurred to you how good your life can be.”
I just believe that everybody can have a better life. Faith is a big part of my life. It just tears at my soul when I continually sentence people (and have doubts about what good prison does). I don’t want to say the system’s bad; I don’t believe it’s bad. But we’ve been doing too many things wrong for too long. Life can be better. There have to be some better solutions out there than we’ve been pursuing. And I’m not gonna give up on continuing to try to find what they are.
I have a burning desire to make life better for people in the inner city. And I’ll tell you why. I went to a men’s prayer breakfast 20 years ago. I was sitting by a man I didn’t know, an African-American, and he said, “Well, judge, how’s it goin’?” And I said, “Well, it’s not goin’ well. I’ve been sending this endless line of young African-American men to prison and I know why I’m sending them. No male figure in the home, they drop out of school in the 10th grade, best job they have is working at McDonald’s, they sell drugs as a means to get out of the ’hood, and they join gangs for love and family that they never had. And if I know why I’m sentencing them and I just keep sentencing them, then I’m more a part of the problem than I am the solution.” And he stuck out his hand and said, “We need to talk. I’m Martin Mathews.” Well, Martin Mathews is a legend. He is head of Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club. Two million young people have gone through his place. We’ve been working together ever since.
There’s an old athletic club over on Kingshighway. It’s now like a squash club, I think. But one of the former members there invited me one day to go by there. And we were sitting at this table. Beautiful, big wooden table, long table. And he said, “You know the significance of this table?” And I said, “Well, it’s a beautiful table.” He said, “The men sitting around this table arranged for the flight of the Spirit of St. Louis.” (Webber pauses, choked up.) I get emotional when I even talk about it. I’m sorry about that. But anyway, my belief is that that spirit can be revived and St. Louis can again be a great city. It’s not a great city now. It’s a divided, seriously racially divided city.
I don’t want to leave St. Louis, either by walking away or in a box, without believing that I’ve done everything in my power to change the face of St. Louis so that we can turn away from violence. St. Louis could become a bastion of change that could be emulated in other places. The only way that’s ever going to happen is everybody rolls up their sleeves and puts aside a lot of their preconceived ideas and looks for new ways to really solve some of these problems that aren’t being solved.
Mark Obbie, a former executive editor of The American Lawyer, writes on criminal justice issues for a variety of online and print publications, including The New York Times, The Trace, and TakePart. He can also be reached through his Twitter account. He welcomes readers’ comments.