A New Year's Wish

12/29/2020 by Richard Bronson

I’d like to share a New Year’s story with you that (spoiler alert) has a happy ending.

Thirty years ago, I worked at a brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, that was prominently featured in Martin Scorsese’s film, “Wolf of Wall Street.” I became friendly with one of my fellow co-partners, a guy named Irv Stitsky. We shared some outrageous times, but unfortunately our business practices left much to be desired.

I left Stratton to launch my own financial services firm where I continued those dubious practices (except on a much larger scale) and paid the price for my greed when I was sentenced to a two-year prison sentence. I lost everything in the process.

I lost track of Irv until six years ago. I was working for a non-profit in the reentry space and had a speaking engagement at a prison in New York. After my speech, inmates crowded around me, eager to connect and ask questions. At first, I didn’t recognize the guy who rolled his wheelchair up to me. Then I realized it was my old friend, Irv.

I had heard that Irv had gotten into trouble arising from a real estate company he launched, but I didn’t know much more. I asked him about the length of his sentence. “85 years,” he responded. I was stunned. Whatever Irv did—or didn’t do—I knew he hadn’t committed a violent crime and couldn’t have deserved a life sentence.

I investigated further and learned that when Irv was indicted, he was offered a plea deal—a chance to admit his guilt and accept a sentence, without fighting the case in court. The vast majority of criminal cases are disposed this way, saving the courts a great deal of time and expense.

Irv’s was a federal case where defendants almost never go to trial. Their attorneys let them know in no uncertain terms that if they choose to exercise their constitutional right to a jury trial, statistically they stand almost no chance of winning. And when they lose, they can count on a sentence much stiffer than the term offered in the plea deal.

But Irv believed his case had merit and decided to pass up the 7-year sentence offered on his plea deal and take his chances in court.

Irv lost his case and was sentenced to 85 years in a federal prison.

Irv and I would correspond from time to time, and he would tell me of the efforts of different people and organizations that were advocating for either his release or minimally, a re-sentencing. I was skeptical. But a few nights ago, I received a call from a mutual friend, telling me that Irv had received a pardon from President Trump. I was shocked but also very excited for my old friend.

Irv called me the next day from his sister’s home in Connecticut. Immediately following the announcement of his pardon, guards came to Irv’s prison cell and gave him the good news. “Grab your belongings. You’re leaving now.”

Irv is spending his new-found freedom visiting his family—his sisters who love him dearly; his kids that have grown considerably in the ten years that he was down; and lavishing love on his grandchildren, who never met their grandfather. For Irv, this will be a very, very happy new year.

Hundreds of thousands of other inmates are wondering if this new year will be their last. Not because they except a pardon, but because they watch cellmates carried away on stretchers, victims of a virus that has coursed through our jails and prisons.

For the tens of thousands of men and women who received decades-long sentences for nonviolent crimes (perhaps for possessing drugs that have been decriminalized in certain states), this new year will be just like any other spent locked in a cage. A new year separated from loved ones, eating inedible food, treated for illness by those who cannot heal, in a cell that’s either too hot or too cold. Or worse: thrown into solitary confinement, watching for the telltale signs that you’re slowly losing your mind.

There’s only one way the new year could bring any measure of happiness to them: when the President or the presiding Governor decides to pardon not just one or two or 20 deserving individuals, but rather all of the deserving individuals who are serving sentences so egregious that they call into question the very humanity of our society.

So while we suffer through our greatly diminished New Year’s Eve plans, happy to say goodbye to the very worst of years, let’s at least share a toast for all of our fellow Americans languishing in prison because they chose not to cop a plea. And please join me in a toast to the happiness of Irv and his family. Happy New Year’s, old friend!

— Richard Bronson

Founder/CEO of Commissary Club & 70 Million Jobs