John A. Wilson Building, Washington D.C. Sentencing Commission, JOEL CASTÓN

Joel Castón Wants To Prove Formerly Incarcerated People Deserve To Lead

Castón was incarcerated for a violent crime he committed as a young person and began to turn his life around while incarcerated.

The lingering consequences of incarceration is something that Washington, D.C., Sentencing Commission member Joel Castón has also had to deal with. 

Castón was incarcerated for a violent crime he committed as a young person and began to turn his life around while incarcerated. As Fast Company reported, Castón actually won his first election to Washington D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission while he was still serving his sentence. Thus, Castón became the first incarcerated person in D.C.’s history to win an election while still serving a sentence. Castón has had to deal with the preconceived notions of what a former felon is and what that is supposed to look like once he re-entered the free world. 

Castón told the outlet, “Folks gravitate toward [my conviction] because we have a preconceived notion of what ‘a murderer’ looks like. It’s almost as if they’re programmed to find it problematic to speak about my accolades in a positive light without mentioning the darkest moment in my past.” 

Upon joining the commission tasked with sentencing considerations in D.C., Castón received a letter from U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves. In the letter, Graves questioned Castón’s expertise and raised concerns about potential alignment with another member’s positions. This other member is associated with The Sentencing Project, an organization focused on advocating for fair sentencing guidelines and other reforms within the criminal justice system.

Graves wrote, in part, “neither [Castón’s] work nor his lived experience as an incarcerated person renders him an expert in sentencing policy matters”

However, despite Graves’ attempt to discredit him, Castón was embraced both by those who had been incarcerated alongside him and by organizations like The Sentencing Project.

Furthermore, Nazgol Ghandnoosh, the co-director of research for The Sentencing Project, who is also on the commission, believes the insights offered by formerly incarcerated persons “have a level of insight that researchers, judges, police chiefs—none of us can offer: What does it mean to have lived in a community disproportionately impacted by crime? What does it mean to get a year sentence versus probation? What does it mean for someone to be in prison for 20-plus years? How destabilizing is that? What is it like to have your parents pass away while you’re incarcerated? This is critical information that would really benefit us as a city.” 

In an August 2023 first person essay for Time magazine, co-written by Abigail Glasgow, Castón shared how the restoration of his voting rights had awakened a burning desire for civic engagement inside of him. Castón also used the opportunity to call for more incarcerated people to run for office. 

“Between YME (Young Men Emerging, a mentorship program Castón started with Michael Woody while incarcerated) and the restoration to vote, I had a taste for civic engagement that freed me,” Castón said.

He added, “It wasn’t a question of why I should do this, but why shouldn’t I? I was sentenced to die in prison; but now, away from the places that held me captive in South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia, New York, Kentucky—now, I’m back home, in our nation’s capital, and had a chance to advocate for my brothers and sisters inside. I had a chance to debunk the myths and the grossly misconceptualized definitions of what it means to be ‘an inmate,’ ‘a prisoner,’ ‘a criminal.’ This seat was for someone like me. Once in office, I became a direct line to the D.C. Jail that hadn’t existed before.”

Castón, like political figures Virginia Speaker Don Scott, New York Councilmember Yusuf Salaam, and Assemblymember Eddie Gibbs, Rhode Island Representatives Leonla Felix and Cherie Cruz, and Washington State Representative Tarra Simmons are part of a growing cadre of figures who are helping to humanize formerly incarcerated people.

As Castón told Fast Company, “Many believe that formerly incarcerated people all vote the same, all think the same way—we’ve been put in the same proverbial box. Being formerly incarcerated doesn’t mean that I lack the capacity or the ability to be just and equitable in my judgment. I want to prove that someone with my background can serve.” 

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