A convicted murderer who spent 27 years behind bars has been appointed to the Washington, D.C., prison sentencing commission that drafts and modifies criminal sentencing guidelines.

Joel Castón, who was convicted of murder at the age of 18 after he killed a man in a 1994 parking lot shooting, was appointed to be one of 12 voting members on the sentencing commission, according to The Washington Post. 

When he takes up the position, Castón will be the first person who has been incarcerated to serve on the commission.

“It’s not just a win for me, it’s a win for all returning citizens nationwide,” Castón said. “It sends a resounding message to all returning citizens that you can participate in civic engagement.”

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Council member Anita Bonds, one of 12 lawmakers who voted in support of Castón, said the appointment was “the right direction for us to move in.”

“We say as a society that giving individuals a second chance is tantamount to being and having the American experience. Well, here we go,” Bonds said, according to the Washington Post. 

Castón was released from prison in 2021, nearly three decades after he killed an 18-year-old man.

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While in prison, he made history by becoming the first person to be elected to office in Washington, D.C., by winning a seat on his district’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC).

He also became a mentor and instructor while he learned several languages and developed a personal finance curriculum called “Currency Catchers,” according to the Georgetown University Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI). The group provides programs for incarcerated people and aims to end mass incarceration. 

Castón has also advocated for restorative justice and prison reform as well as consulting and other work with criminal justice organizations, the Washington Post reports. 

“It hasn’t been 27 years of waiting to go home, it’s been 27 years preparing myself to never come back to prison again,” Castón said shortly after his release, according to PJI.

In a January interview, Castón said his time in prison gave him a unique understanding of the impact of sentences and that his years of studying the criminal justice system would help him determine just punishment guidelines.

“I am going to apply sound judgment based on the facts that are presented to me, without being influenced by any outside parties,” Castón said in a January interview. “It is not fair to put me in a box simply because I was a formerly justice-involved individual. That is not fair.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, nominated Castón, arguing that he would bring a valuable perspective to the panel from his 27 years behind bars.

That view was echoed by The Sentencing Project, a group that aims to minimize imprisonment and criminalization.

“The perspective of an individual with lived experience of incarceration will assist in providing a well-rounded understanding of the impact and implementation of those sentences,” said Kara Gotsch, the executive director of The Sentencing Project. 

Castón’s appointment wasn’t without opposition. 

The vote was initially scheduled for Jan. 9, but Mendelson postponed it after U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves sent a letter highlighting questions about Castón’s integrity and alleging that he would probably advocate for lesser sentencing ranges given his nearly three decades spent locked up, according to the Washington Post. 

Critics also argued the timing of the appointment was wrong, given the city’s crime concerns and calls for stiffer penalties for criminals. 

Last year D.C. had the fifth-highest per capita murder rate among the nation’s biggest cities, and this year began with high-profile carjackings, robberies and killings, the Washington Post reports. 

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