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Karen Smith Gates: A plea for mercy

Governor DeSantis, it is not too late to still save lives.

Governor DeSantis:

As of Sept. 10, 117 people warehoused in Florida state prisons have died of COVID-19. Of those who have died, some were eligible for parole. Prisons are Petri dishes for the pandemic and keeping people eligible for parole in them is playing with their lives in a way that is agonizing for them and for their loved ones.

My brother, Kayle Smith, is being held at Wakulla Correctional Institution in Crawfordsville. As of Sept. 10, 246 incarcerated people and 135 staff members at Wakulla have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of infections among people housed in prisons is more than triple what it was in mid-July. At least two people there have died.

My brother is eligible for parole, and I am deathly afraid that he will become a casualty of COVID-19 before he can be freed. Here are some facts about him:

He is 52 years old. When he was 18, he was sentenced to life in prison with a 25-year mandatory term. That mandatory sentence ended eight years ago, but still, the State of Florida will not release him.

He has not committed an act of violence in 34 years. He is not a threat to anyone.

He has a home and loving family waiting for him.

He has earned various certifications in the field of dentistry from the Florida Department of Education and is now certified as a professional dental lab technician.

He submitted a “Commute to Sentence” to the state in 2016 and an expedite request in 2017, but is still waiting for a decision.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” all factors that should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile defendants. Again, Kayle was 18 when convicted.

Governor DeSantis, I have written to you repeatedly over the past four and a half months and have not received a reply. I have also written to Florida Secretary of Corrections Mark Inch. Altogether, through emails and phone calls to legislators, reform support groups, media outlets and more, I have made 280 attempts to try to help my brother and other people whose fates are entrusted to you, and at each turn I have been met with inaction.

Finally, I want to explain that me and my family are the victims of Kayle’s offense, and we have been asking for mercy for decades. My brother’s crime resulted in the death of my mom, not by his doing, but by someone else involved. My brother was not present in her house when she was killed.

It has been a long and hard road, but my teenage brother’s actions 34 years ago have long since been forgiven by our family. We have been asking for mercy for decades. We deserve to be made whole, and the state is preventing that by keeping him from us. Kayle is not a danger to the public; he has not committed an offense since 1986. By keeping him locked up the only thing the state is doing is wasting taxpayer dollars and further punishing his family. We have suffered enough.

As you can imagine, Kayle has lived with guilt, regret and remorse from the moment the crime happened. If a primary purpose of our corrections system is rehabilitation, then Kayle is a success story; he is thoroughly rehabilitated. He deserves a second chance, and we deserve to have him back in our lives before he contracts COVID and dies in prison.

So, let me speak to something besides the emotional aspects as to why my brother should be released: It costs the taxpayers $20,000 per year to house one prisoner. Multiply that by 33 years and that is $660,000 already spent on warehousing him despite the fact that we, the surviving loved ones of his past crime, want him to be released. This money could have been used for substance abuse programs, mental health counseling or programs for the elderly. But, no, it has been used to warehouse someone who has done more than enough time for his crime. What an absolute waste of taxpayers’ money, not to mention the waste of a life.

I understand that crimes deserve to be punished. I also understand mercy and the notion that victims deserve to be made whole. What is the purpose of a criminal justice system that locks up people for their entire lives for crimes they did as a teenager, when those who are most directly impacted by the crimes are begging for justice in the form of release?

Governor DeSantis, it is not too late to still save lives. I beg you to start with my brother. He has tested negative for the virus for now, but you have the power to literally save his life. I beg you to have mercy and please release him.

___

Karen Gates is an activist for corrections reform in Florida.

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