June 21, 2017 Community news from the prairie to the lakes  
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  I am the voice of one who cannot speak for himself anymore
  by KIRSTEN MILUN, Corcoran, MN

Letter to Judge Glen Eng, on the day of your retirement:
Although you may not remember me, I will never forget you. My son, Alex Milun, a student at the University of South Dakota, was arrested on a pot charge and stood before you and your court on April 3, 2013. Alex was a young man who had never been in trouble with the law before. He had no priors, a clean slate. You had received many letters attesting to his life-long character, letters from professors and teachers, employers in Vermillion, and family.

I would like to tell you, and the good citizens of South Dakota something about how your sentencing of Alex on April 3, 2013 impacted his life. On the day of his sentencing I was seated behind Alex, along with several members of Alex’s large and loving family. We were there to support Alex. We fully realized that Alex had deserved some form of punishment. We also understood that your role was to protect the citizens of your district.

As a judge, you wield power and authority. As a judge you had the option to punish Alex in a number of ways but you decided ‘to send a message to Minnesota’ and you sentenced this first time offender, this 21 year old college student to a maximum security prison in Sioux Falls for one month and then had him transferred to a state prison for two months.

You then released him under the condition that if he were caught drinking alcohol in excess or smoking pot during the following five years or if he was merely with anyone who was in possession, he would be immediately sent back to prison for seventeen years - no questions asked. Seventeen years. You wanted to send a clear message to the people of Minnesota. Congratulations on that sir. Mission accomplished.

Alex was not even allowed to move back home to Minnesota until May of 2015. Alex was exposed to unspeakable things in your prison. He never recovered mentally, and the cruelty, drugs, and injustices he saw and experienced there changed him forever. This 21 year old young man - a bright, fresh-faced young man, was under so much stress that he developed shingles.

He came out and immediately started working several jobs to pay off the legal fees he had accumulated from his case. We were afraid that his depression and sunken eyes were evidence of something that had happened to him in prison. We assumed it was PTSD.

As ordered, Alex underwent (and passed) his drug tests on a regular basis. We never knew that he had started using opioids. He went into South Dakota’s prison system for a marijuana offense: when he came out he was decidedly different. Alex died of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl on October 24, 2015. We had him home for five months.

We never knew. And we have so many questions. Would Alex have come to us and gotten medical help if he did not have the threat of that seventeen year sentence hanging over his head? What happened to him in the maximum-security prison?

He made a stupid choice as a very young man, a punishable choice. But your choice, sir, showed lack of critical thinking and quite frankly, vindictiveness.

There is another South Dakota judge retiring this year along with you... the Honorable Tim Bjorkman. Judge Bjorkman recently gave a talk at the VFW in Sioux Falls regarding the profound consequences of using our state prison systems for the mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. There are judges around the country who are working to make sure that our young men and women who serve time for minor, nonviolent drug offenses are not abandoned into a predatory environment of violent criminals. How could you have gotten this so wrong?

It is our hope that when you close your eyes at night, you see this face before you as we do. I know Alex would forgive your indifferent ignorance, but as a mother who speaks now on behalf of our dead children, I say... if there is judgement in the afterlife, hopefully the Judge will be kinder than you were to those who stood before your bench - otherwise the flames of retribution could burn hot indeed. Go forward and do good Mr. Eng. You have souls in your hands as we all do. It’s the ripple effect isn’t it?

  Kirsten Milun is the daughter of editorial cartoonist Ray Hanson.
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