Mendelson defends nomination of formerly incarcerated man to DC sentencing commission

The D.C. Council is set to vote on allowing formerly convicted murderer, Joel Castón, to join the D.C. Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission, which has sparked debate among D.C. leaders.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is standing behind his choice of selecting Castón to fill the seat on the 17-person panel.

“He committed a horrible crime in 1994 — murdered somebody — [and] lied about it subsequently,” said Mendelson. “But … in a case, involving request for early release, [they] noted that his behavior had been exemplary.”

Castón was convicted of murder at 18 and served 27 years in prison before undergoing what his supporters called a “remarkable transformation fueled by faith and education” and was paroled in 2021. Before he was released, he became the first incarcerated person to win elected office in the District with a seat on an ANC.

In further defense of his nomination, Mendelson said he was asked to name a former convict to sit on the panel.

“The commission asked that we appoint a returning citizen. And in fact, this is consistent with what appears to be considered best practice and an emerging trend in other states,” he said.

The commission Castón would serve on includes judges and representatives from the prosecutor’s office and the public defender service. The group looks at the “consistency of sentences” in criminal cases and offers recommendations designed to enhance the fairness and effectiveness of criminal sentencing policies, according to Mendelson and their website.

He added that it’s not unusual to have former convicts serve on such panels.

U.S. Attorney for D.C. Matthew Graves criticized the choice of Castón, arguing that his incarceration doesn’t make him an expert on sentencing matters.

In a Jan. 2 letter, Graves voiced concern about the District’s crime rate and blamed current sentencing guidelines for creating “a revolving door for those who are arrested and prosecuted,” claiming Castón would work to further reduce incarcerations.

However, according to Mendelson, Graves used his letter to “complain about how few cases sentences last year were a significant sentence.”

Proponents of Caston’s nomination, like Kara Gotsch, acting executive director with The Sentencing Project, support having a formerly incarcerated person on a committee that handles such matters.

“Including the perspective of an individual with lived experience of incarceration in policy discussions that influence those guidelines is vital for providing a well-rounded understanding of the impact and implementation of sentences,” said Gotsch in a statement.

She adds that Graves concerns are “unreasonable” to suggest someone’s experience has “no relevance in sentencing matters.”

The council will meet on Tuesday to vote on Castón’s nomination.

WTOP’s Dick Uliano and Ivy Lyons contributed to this report. 

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Ciara Wells

Ciara Wells is the Evening Digital Editor at WTOP. She is a graduate of American University where she studied journalism and Spanish. Before joining WTOP, she was the opinion team editor at a student publication and a content specialist at an HBCU in Detroit.

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