This article provides a brief overview of what I learned from prisoners who entered the criminal justice without a full understanding of the battles ahead. I wrote this article specifically to help first-time offenders and white-collar offenders understand more about how uninformed decisions could easily lead them into federal prison.
While serving 26 years in prisons of every security level, I learned a great deal from listening to hundreds of other people who served time in federal prison. I interviewed them and wrote their stories in an effort to help more people understand federal prisons, the people they hold, and strategies for growing through confinement.
That work gave me some key takeaways. Namely, many first-time offenders—and white-collar offenders in particular—made decisions without understanding the nature of the system. Since they didn’t understand the system, they made crucial decisions while in a fragile state of mind. Many were afraid to discuss matters truthfully with key advisors. Others lived in denial and so they only told half-truths to people who could guide them through.
This article, along with others I will publish in this series about the criminal justice system on MichaelSantos.com, will show readers why they should invest time to understand more about the criminal justice system if they learn that they’ve been targeted for prosecution. This free information will empower individuals who face troubles with the law to respond in more deliberate ways.
To broaden my understanding of the criminal justice process, I relied upon some key resources, including a law book titled Modern Criminal Procedure, by Professor Yale Kamisar and others. As my website shows, while I served decades in prison I worked hard to educate myself with literature. But in addition to studying words on a page, I listened to the men around me. They provided a more personal perspective. Specifically, I learned about steps many federal prisoners wished that they’d taken the moment authorities let them know criminal charges were a possibility.
Relatively few Americans have more than a basic understanding of the criminal justice system. They knew that law enforcement offers arrested people, prosecutors brought the formal charge, and when people were convicted jail or prison frequently followed. Defendants should educate themselves further than a surface understanding of the system. After all, a criminal charge for a first-time offender would bring life-changing implications.
Many white-collar offenders with whom I spoke made bad decisions when they first learned that they faced charges for fraud of any kind. Whether it was wire fraud, mail fraud, securities fraud, bankruptcy fraud, or tax fraud, defendants liked to cling to denials. They wanted so badly to believe that they didn’t do anything wrong that they went to great lengths to convince themselves that they didn’t do anything wrong. They wanted to believe so badly that they were good citizens that they left out salient parts of the story when described details that led to criminal charges. Some didn’t talk with anyone. They just couldn’t believe that anyone would consider them a criminal. Too many defendants believed that since they never intended to break the law, they would not be vulnerable to convictions.
I am not a lawyer and I do not offer legal advice. Rather, I write about what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned while climbing through decades in prison. I know the bad decisions that I made as a young man resulted in my suffering much more than I had to when I faced federal criminal charges. Had I known more about the criminal justice system and how it operated, I would’ve been able to work more effectively with my attorney. Similarly, other offenders with whom I spoke recognized that they were not prepared to deal with the uncomfortable realities that accompany criminal charges in federal court. They wished that they’d known more during such a crucial time in their life.
As I wrote in an earlier essay:
Readers ought to understand that the criminal justice process has one function. That function is to protect society through a series of procedures designed to enforce the substantive criminal laws of this country. All branches of law enforcement work together to prosecute crimes, and just as some offenders will make every effort to evade detection and apprehension by law-enforcement officers, representatives of the criminal justice system will make every effort to solve a crime and obtain a conviction.
CEO Goes to Prison for Securities Fraud
In that same essay I told the story of my friend Steve (not his real name). He was a successful executive who launched a company from his living room. Within months he had some huge clients and his business grew quite rapidly. Eventually, Steve needed more capital. He raised funds from angel investors who provided the capital Steve needed to scale his business.
Investment bankers came calling and Steve prepared the documents necessary to launch an initial public offering. Suddenly he wasn’t only a sales leader: Steve’s new role placed him as the CEO of a publicly traded company. But he lacked the experience to fully understand the implications of complying with all securities laws. He did not understand Sarbanes-Oxley, and that criminal charges could follow bad decisions.
All went well while for Steven and his company when the market roared higher. Investors placed a high valuation on Steve’s company, basing their optimism on the company’s rapidly increasing revenues. When conditions turned, revenues did not rise as quickly as market analysts expected. Steve knew the stock would take a huge hit if the company didn’t report revenues in accordance with market expectations. His CFO proposed a solution. Steve could barter revenues with some of its strategic partners. Leaders of each company conspired together, doctoring sales orders to make it look as if one company was purchasing goods or services from the other. They were not concerned with profits, but with meeting market expectations.
The idea worked wonderfully well, except that it was illegal. When authorities caught up with Steve, he denied everything. When he retained counsel, Steve told me that dissembled, perpetuating the lie and making matters worse. He lied to his family. He lied to his friends. It wasn’t until he couldn’t keep up with the lies that he finally came clean. But by then it was too late. Authorities charged Steve with securities fraud. Whereas Steve could’ve avoiding a lengthy term in prison had he been truthful with attorneys and cooperated with authorities from the start, the choices he made out of ignorance exposed him to a term of prison that had many other life-changing ramifications.
I heard stories similar to Steve’s throughout my term. Since they didn’t set out to break criminal laws, they wanted to believe that were good citizens who would not see the inside of a criminal court room. Unfortunately, many defendants come to terms with their decisions until they had made a series of other bad decisions that would make matters even worse. They walked into the judicial process blindly. As a consequence, they made decisions from a position of weakness rather than strength. After their conviction, they continued to repeat the same mistakes:
- They didn’t understand the relevance of the presentence investigation (PSI) and how it would influence their life.
- They didn’t know anything about the sentencing process, and so they missed opportunities to work toward mitigating the sentence.
- They didn’t know anything about prison and repeated the folly, going inside without anyone to guide or prepare them for the challenges ahead.
- They didn’t know anything about life after prison, and concluded their federal prison terms to face entirely new sets of problems and challenges.
At MichaelSantos.com I offer an abundance of free information that will help criminal defendants understand more about the process of going through the criminal justice system. Through books I’ve published that are available through my store or bookstores, I provide more narrative about lessons I’ve learned while traversing 26 years in prisons of every security level. Those who choose to invest the resources may retain me to help them with sentence mitigation strategies and to prepare them for the challenges of triumphing over imprisonment.