Sentenced at Seventeen
Sentenced as an adult at the age of 17, I have spent over half my life in prison.
I grew up poor in a dysfunctional household. My father was a drug addict, in and out of jail, rarely around. My mother was also addicted to drugs and was a negligent parent. My older brother was a juvenile delinquent in and out of detention facilities.
When I was about five my mother uprooted me and my brother from Troy, New York, to move to Detroit Michigan, to follow behind a boyfriend who got her strung out on drugs and beat her in front of us. We were just little boys that could do nothing but beg him to stop.
Eventually my mother escaped her abusive boyfriend with me and my brother to a shelter for battered women and moved back to New York to live in Albany. Unfortunately she continued to use drugs and my older brother began getting into trouble and sent off to juvenile detention facilities.
In 1990 my first baby sister was born. When I was about eleven me and my baby sister were removed from our mother’s custody and placed in foster care due to parental neglect. After the first foster home we were separated. I went from foster home to group home to foster home and back and forth until I was signed out of the foster care system when I was sixteen.
My living situation at that time was transitory as I struggled to find employment and a place to live. For a short time I moved to Hudson New York to rent an apartment from my former foster mother.
I held down a few temporary jobs, but I was forced to move back to Albany, New York because the apartment I was renting from my former foster mother was unlivable, there was no stove and no refrigerator.
I then went to live with my father and got arrested trying to sell drugs. I plead guilty to misdemeanor drug offense. I received three years probation and youthful offender status.
When I was released from jail I went into Equinox Youth Shelter, where for the first time I thrived. But I was only able to stay there a short time due to state regulations. So I ended up in another shelter, where I had a hard time getting along with the social worker who had a personal issue with my having a cell phone, which I needed to get work. Up until that point, I was doing well. I had received my GED, secured full time employment, and had my own checking account. But this intrusive social worker felt the need to hassle me over my cell phone and impose limits on my usage, even though I was paying the bill. Out of frustration I threatened the social worker and was evicted.
Prior to the eviction I had attended business seminars and was working as an independent contractor for Equinox (not the shelter) and ACN.
My eviction from the shelter was a turning point for me. I was positioned for a promising career. I was working on transitioning to independent living, planning on attending college for computer engineering and then enter the Air Force to become an officer and continue my education.
When I was evicted, in addition to being homeless I lost my job. I went to stay with my stepmothers sister whose oldest son influenced me to start robbing people. I committed one robbery , two attempted robberies, and related offenses. I did not hurt, harm or injure anyone.
Despite that, my rough upbringing, my lack of help and support, and despite my drive and potential, at the age of 17 I was sentenced as an adult to a minimum of 35 years and a maximum of 70. I am now serving 25 to 50 years.
I was thrown away, sent to a maximum security prison surrounded by hardened adult criminals in a dangerous and corrupt environment where young prisoners were preyed upon and manipulated, particularly for sex and gang recruitment.
I refused to be victimized. I was forced to adapt to survive, to become hardened. I became acclimated to violent and criminal behavior. I fought at times and learned to make, use and conceal weapons to defend myself. I sold drugs to support myself because I had no one to send me money or packages. Prison drives people to these behaviors because the weak and dependent are victimized. On top of that, many prison staff members are abusive and sadistic. I have been assaulted by prison guards, and cut by other prisoners in an incident instigated by prison guards.
Despite my difficulties in prison I have made strides to educate and better myself and others. I earned college credits by completing the certificate in Ministry and Human Services program of the New York Theological Seminary. I earned certificates in legal research, public speaking, food services and computer operation. I served on the executive boards of various approved prison organizations such as the NAACP, the National Trust for the Development of African American Men, Prisoners Making Alliances with Communities and the African Cultural Awareness Program. I served as a member of the Inmate Liaison Committee which meets with prison officials to present the concerns, complaints and requests of the prisoner population.
I am a peer and youth educator, teaching and facilitating various educational and informational classes. I have also taken several younger prisoners under the wing to be a positive influence in their lives, encouraging them to become better men.
I have now been in prison over twenty years, over half my life. Governor Cuomo can commute my sentence today and order my release from prison. I am one of many forgotten juvenile offenders who were tossed away and sent to adult prisons. Now that we are adults nobody seems to care about the injustice dealt us.
My case is an example of why juveniles should not be prosecuted and sentenced as adults. In Graham V. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) and Miller V. Alabama 567 U.S. 460 (2012) recognized that juveniles have ‘lessened culpability’ and greater ‘capacity for change’. I was such a juvenile. I was redeemable. The system failed me as a child. I struggled to find stability in my young life. My life of crime was an aberration that spanned only ten months. It was a cry for help from a youth who all his life lived under difficult circumstances which I had no control over.
Keeping me in prison is a waste of tax dollars. I pose no threat to public safety. My release from prison would contribute to the public good because I am committed to uplifting others, particularly at-risk youth.
If you believe I should be given a chance, call or email Governor Cuomo and ask him to commute my sentence. You can sign this petition and share it with others. You can contact my lawyer Eric W. Dyer, Esq. at 518-429-4246 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also write to me directly at: Dontie S. Mitchell 98 A 0071 Great Meadow Correctional Facility, Box 51, Comstock, NY 12821-0051
(If you do write to Dontie please follow the regulations for writing to an inmate )