Judge Kopf Admits His “Sentencing Instincts” of Shon Hopwood “Suck”

August 8th, 2013

Over the past few years, I’ve had the joy of getting to know Shon Hopwood and his family (I interviewed him on the blog in 2011 and 2013). Shon has made some waves of late, as he was hired for a clerkship by Judge Janice Rogers Brown. Tony Mauro has the story. Kudos to Shon for what I’m sure is the first of many, many more great successes. His story is a remarkable one of redemption.

I wrote a letter on Shon’s behalf, which I quote here in part:

 After receiving an honorable discharge from the United States Navy in 1996, where he received numerous medals and commendations, Shon made a series of terrible life decisions, and robbed five banks in 1997 and 1998. At his sentencing, Shon vowed that he would change, and become a better person (something I know you have heard countless times). The district judge replied, “We’ll know in about 13 years if you mean what you say.” He meant it. In a providential twist of fate, Shon’s decade in federal prison led him through an unbelievable path towards redemption.

I found the juxtaposition between Shon’s sentencing, which he recounts in his book, and his recent successes, as an important way to paint the path he’s travelled. Shon truly meant that he would become a better person, but this is something that judges hear, and disregard, thousands of times. In my letter, I wanted to show that Shon promised a judge he would change, and he did. Over a decade later, as personified by Judge Brown’s hiring, Shon has.

The impact of Shon’s hiring on the Blogosphere has rippled to the blog of U.S. District Judge Richard G.  Kopf. It turns out that Judge Kopf sentenced Shon. (Kopf is mentioned in a few places in Shon’s book, but not in the part about sentencing). And, in a true showing of humility and grace, Judge Kopf conceded that he was wrong about Shon.

Shon Hopwood was a young man when I sentenced him to prison for a long time in the late 1990s.  Hopwood entered a guilty plea to five counts of bank robbery, and one count of using a firearm during a crime of violence. I sentenced Hopwood to 147 months in prison and concurrent terms of supervised release. I also ordered Hopwood to pay restitution in the sum of $134,544.22.

Three things:

  • Hopwood deserves all the credit in the world. I hope he makes the best of an astounding opportunity.
  • Janice Rogers Brown is a hero. Although pilloried by the left when she was appointed, the woman I came to know while serving on the Codes of Conduct Committee for six years is a stunning combination of brilliance and perfectly centered good judgment. She is also a wonderfully humble, kind and decent person.
  • Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck. When I sent him to prison, I would have bet the farm and all the animals that Hopwood would fail miserably as a productive citizen when he finally got out of prison. My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk–all mouth, and very little else.  My viscera was wrong.

I would not fault Judge Kopf at all. When I was clerking in district court, I found sentencing one of the toughest parts of the job. At first, like any young punk, I would suggest to the Judge what I thought the sentence should be, based on the guidelines, presentencing report, 3553(a), and other factors. After a few months, I stopped doing this. In addition to the obvious fact that the Judge totally ignored what I suggested (not to uncommon), I recognized that I did not have the wherewithal to commit to paper how long a person should be locked up. I simply couldn’t do it.

I would often ask Judge how he sentenced people, and whether he planned a number in advance. He said no–the number came to him on the spot. Right at the moment when he is about to pronounce sentence, he would always pause. Sometimes for 5 seconds. Sometimes for 30 seconds. I think once or twice for a minute. And he would think at that moment, with all the parties in front of him, and arrive at a number. I never understood how he, and thousands of other judges sentence. It is a remarkable aspect of the job.

Judge Kopf should not beat himself up. He did the job with Shon that he has done countless other times. Shon was the one-in-a-million who proved him wrong.

In the comments, Shon shows his warmth, and would not criticize Judge Kopf’s sentencing:

I wouldn’t say that your sentencing instincts suck. While I meant what I said at sentencing, I was hardly the person that could back it up. I was a reckless and selfish young man back then. I changed. I think most of us change from the age of 22 to 38. And many, like me, outgrow the irresponsibility and foolishness. I can’t tell you how many law enforcement officers (including prosecutors) have come up to me and said something similar to this: I know your story and I too committed some crimes when I was young (although not in the category of bank robberies), and I was lucky enough to not get caught. They changed and channeled their energies and became responsible professionals. I did, too.

But as a judge, you’re constrained by the system we have. I’ve never believed that it’s up to judges to fix that system on their own. It requires citizens to view criminal justice issues differently (and heck, to view prisoners differently), and a Congress to actually pass some legislation.

I feel fortunate that I have been given so many second chances, including the sentence which allowed me to be released at a fairly young age. That doesn’t always happen.

I am excited to see what comes next for Shon.