All Things Considered, Shon Hopwood and me

This week, Shon Hopwood and I participated in a joint interview with Melissa Block of NPR. Ms. Block was in Washington, Shon was in Seattle and I was in Lincoln. That exchange will air today (Thursday, September 5, 2013, 4:35 PM Eastern Time) on All Things Considered.

For what it is worth, I enjoyed the exchange. I had not talked with Hopwood since I sentenced him in 1999 to 147 months in prison. I found him mature, introspective, smart, engaging, intellectually honest, and well-spoken. Ms. Block impressed me as well. Her credentials are superb, but even they fail to adequately convey her terrific interviewing skills. She drew us out like a great lawyer taking discovery depositions of fact witnesses.

If I won’t give interviews to for-profit media, why did I consent to this one? NPR is, of course, a not-for-profit entity. More importantly, NPR has an educational mission. Since I hope this blog educates (at least some of the time), and since Shon’s story is certainly educational, I concluded that doing the interview was the right thing to do.  I guess we shall see.


41 responses

  1. Marc,

    You are very welcome, but you, not me, deserve the thanks. If and when you are comfortable, I hope you will tell us (or me) your story. We might even be able to work that into a guest post.

    I wondered about your background. Your prior comments on this blog have been insightful. Your URL and the site associated with it (which I can see from the innards of this platform) made me curious.When I clicked on your site, I became even more interested why someone in your business would have an interest in what I write. To make sense of it, I assumed that you were a lawyer who had ditched the profession to pursue a career in a physically demanding, tough and competitive business environment (and maybe that’s true).

    In any event, I sincerely appreciate your candor and kind words. All the best.


  2. I really enjoyed the story on ATC/NPR. I listen everyday, and get a lot more news from them than any other media source (and the correct pronunciations for foreign places and people). I teach history to at-risk youth, and I too wonder how my words of wisdom and tough love will resonate after they leave my care. All three of you were fantastic. Melissa Block did a superb job. I could hear joy in all of your voices. Thank you.

  3. I listened to the interview. Both you and Shon gave thoughtful answers, so I think the interview was informative and served a public interest. Elaine Mittleman

  4. I listened to the interview today on the ride home from work and found it honest, thought provoking and probably one of the best stories I have heard on NPR. Thank you for sharing!

  5. In five days, I will pick-up my boyfriend from the FCI where he has served 4.5 years on a non-violent drug offense. I am a college professor; he is an artist, who taught studio courses while incarcerated. He will be taking a job in a civic arts non-profit and attending graduate school. Together, we founded a non-profit that curates exhibitions of art by incarcerated people, he working from the inside, and a crew of dedicated volunteers seeing the projects through to fruition. He sent the exhibition announcement and recent catalog to the sentencing judge, who was appropriately rigorous and fair, considering mandatory sentencing guidelines to which he was compelled to adhere. The judge replied with a handwritten note of acknowledgement.

    For those of us serving time along with our loved ones, small gestures like this one and like yours, Judge Kopf, today on NPR, mean the world. For those of us serving time along with our loved ones, glimpses of a human (and humane) face of the DOJ are all-too-rare and I am heartened and grateful for every such exchange. Both you and Mr, Hopwood inspire me to have faith that the criminal justice system has the potential to reform both itself and the convicted people who are dedicated to improving themselves. Thank you.

  6. Dear MJ,

    I found it delicious just like the dish. (Parenthetically, I knew I should have fired you when I had the chance.) OK,you got me. I confess that I never listen to NPR and I mock it every chance I get, save for this instance.

    All the best.


  7. Barbara,

    I appreciate your thoughts. Most especially your comment about the piece being thought provoking. Your comment made me smile–I had hoped folks might be provoked to think about the federal criminal justice system. All the best.


  8. Thinker,

    I appreciate your comments, particularly because you teach and you teach kids like I see when they are slightly older. I am glad that you found the interview worthwhile. As I indicated previously, one of the big reasons for doing the interview was to provide the facts of Mr. Hopwood triumph so that other people might learn and profit from his remarkable story.

    All the best.


  9. While driving from Ericson to Albion in the beautiful NE Sandhills late this afternoon..I was thrilled to stumble across the encore broadcast of your NPR interview with Shon. I don’t really have the right words…so I will leave you both with a smile 🙂 , as that is what it did for me.

  10. Dear Curlygrrrl,

    I am delighted to receive your comment. I wish both of you the best.

    I have an idea. After you and your boyfriend get started, send some regular old jpegs taken from an Iphone or the like of a few of the art pieces. I will feature them on this blog with whatever background you provide. My e-mail address is located on the “Contact Me” page shown on the masthead of this blog.

    Again, all the best.


  11. I heard the interview in the car today… and absolutely loved it. I posted a link to the interview on my Facebook page tonight. I’d like everyone to hear it because it’s a story that’s not often told (and who knows perhaps it’s a story that that does not happen often). I teach students at a community college, and I have to say honestly that sometimes I see students and “peg” them one way or another. Some students make me feel that my resources could be better utilized by other students who have a better “chance” at success. Of course when I’m in a reflective mode and catch myself thinking this way, I shake my head and to remind myself that as an educator I believe all students can learn. But it’s tough.

    Of course I love Shon’s story and what he’s been able to do with his life. So proud of him. I hope many young people will look to him – I hope he will go around to tell his story.

    But I also love your story, Judge. I appreciate your honesty and your authentic reflections.

    Question: I was very curious about your comment on the interview about 5 years being “enough” for sentencing (and if I heard it correctly, I think you meant for any crime and for any purpose of sentencing). Can you tell us more about this idea?

  12. I had the good fortune to hear you and Shon on NPR and wanted to share how deeply it touched me. I went to law school back in the 90s and though I don’t currently practice law, I still love the law and work in an investigative capacity in a large corporation, which allows me to use the skills and experience for which my legal education prepared me. I truly hope that Shon gets the opportunity to be admitted to the bar and to continue his work. Judge Kopf, I admire your ability to continually evolve and learn from your experiences as well. The ability to admit one’s own mistakes is one that is a constant struggle for many of us; your aplomb while doing so is truly a gift. I will continue to read your blog and look forward to following Shon’s path as well.

  13. Well said, curlygrrrl. I deal with the stigma of having two family members who are in prison every day of my life. I was a ninth grade dropout, and I returned to school (soon to graduate from University) with hopes that an education would help me help them. I believe I am on the path to help humanize inmates and raise awareness about everything surrounding prisons. It has been a painful journey watching my mom and brother spend a good part of their lives in prison, and I am starting to feel comfortable enough to discuss it. Thank you to everyone, I feel inspired and not alone.

  14. Laura,

    Thanks for your very kind remarks.

    Regarding the five-year statement, what I said was that if the only sentencing goal was to favorably impact the offender, then five years for most crimes was plenty. The problem, if you want to call it a problem, is that sentencing goals in the federal system are much broader and sometimes conflict. For example, if you want to deter other people from robbing banks and, let’s say hypothetically, taking $2 million in a series of bank robberies, you probably want a sentence longer than 5 years so that bank robbery cannot be seen by a rational person as being profitable.

    All the best.


  15. Heather,

    My “aplomb” at admitting my mistakes is a practiced defense mechanism. This will sound hokey, but (1) you can’t be a federal trial judge without making a lot of mistakes that impact other people and (2) if you don’t admit your mistakes, you will be doomed to repeat them. All the best.


  16. Kit,

    Thanks very much. And, what a perfect time of the year to drive through the Sandhills.

    All the best.


    PS to other readers: Kit is the Chief Deputy United States Probation Officer for the District of Nebraska. She is a great one!

  17. Your segment is why I love NPR. In Southern Cal where we’re experiencing a terrible heat wave, I sat in the car in the parking lot to finish listening to the story (I did leave the engine running though).

    Shon’s story touched and inspired me and no doubt countless others. You, Judge, came across as someone I would really enjoy chatting with over a cup of coffee.

    Best regards.

  18. I too enjoyed the NPR story. I happened to be running late, or I might not have heard it and learned of this blog, which I look forward to perusing.

  19. PCFAN,

    “You, Judge, came across as someone I would really enjoy chatting with over a cup of coffee.” Truly, what a nice compliment!

    But, if we had coffee and spoke, what you would find, I hope, is someone who, despite the title “federal judge,” is not so different. By that I mean, most of us are not anything special. We are ordinary people who are both blessed and cursed with the power to do both good and bad. We simply do our fragile best.

    All the best.


  20. I’m not in the field of law but I’m pretty sure being a federal judge requires something special. And it seems what sets you further apart is that you don’t view yourself as infallible. Your modesty and graciousness comes through very clearly in the interview and in your blog. This is why I would really enjoy having a cup of coffee with you. 🙂

  21. I always listens to NPR on my commute, and from time to time, their stories teach me what journalism truly means. Your story was among the top – touching, inspiring and humorous. It was truly a joy to listen to two intellectual and humble humans with the terrific Melissa Block. Thank you.

  22. I really enjoyed the interview. I can appreciate all the hard work Shon has put forth to change his life & wish him the best of luck for his future. My name is Ben Dubas and I am the guy who you told to fix your “damn weed wacker”!! I can’t tell you how pleased it made me to hear that you recalled our interaction at the outdoor power store. Meeting you that day, (rather than inside of a courthouse) really helped me realize how human even a federal judge really is. I never have held a grudge. I made my own bed and then had to lay in it. The physical prison I was sentenced to and used to live in was the easy part, it was the prison of my own addiction that actually held me prisoner. If it wasn’t for the court system & my time away, I have no doubt that I would either be dead or still in prison today. Instead it gave me time to clear my head, create and realize dreams, set goals, and make plans on how i would achieve them. Today I am 10 years 8 month & 6 days sober. I have spoken publicly about alcoholism, drug addiction and my court case at both UNL & Wesleyan in criminal justice and family crisis classes. I am currently in the process to help & work with troubled youth.

    My life has taken such a huge 180 from what it was,.I have a dream job & am a productive part of society. Today I get to go home to the nice house that I own & share with my beautiful wife, 2 sons & a dog…. Instead of living in a cell with another man, sharing a cell block with 100+ other men.

    Today there is no need for me to get high on drugs…. I am high on life!!

  23. Dear Judge,
    I have practiced criminal law for 46 years as a prosecutor and defense attorney. Never have I been so moved as I was listening to the NPR interview with you and Shon Hopwood. The transcript of the show should be distributed to all Federal Judges, and, for that matter to all judges in the country.
    Too often courts look to the Guidelines without regard for the whole person and his or her unique characteristics.
    At least in this case Shon learned his lesson and became a better person as a result. Of course five years would have done the trick as well.
    I too sat in my car and was crying as I drove home.
    You are a tribute to the judiciary.

  24. Dear Richard,

    Given your vast experience, distinguished career and consequent reputation, all I can say is that I am honored and humbled by your kind words. Thank you kindly.

    All the best.


  25. Dear Ben,

    I am stunned. I am so glad for you. I want other people to hear your story, so I am posting your comment as a separate post tomorrow morning.

    I wish could express myself better in this reply, but I can’t because I am stunned.

    Thank you! All the best.


  26. Pingback: Another story of hope, a compliment to a federal judge and the offender’s federal probation officer and criticism of state penal practices « Hercules and the umpire.

  27. Greetings Judge, I have to tell you that I really enjoyed the interview and it lead me to your blog. The story motivated me and made me want to reach out to the Judge that sentenced me to tell her how I was doing. I too was sentenced by a federal judge and I have to say that after a 9 day trial, it could have been worse. Ironically I am married to an attorney who cares about human rights and she wants to be a judge someday. I now work at the law firm of the attorney who handled my affairs post trial and sentencing. Life has a funny way of working out. I was at a trial last week as a translator for the attorney I work for and the judge asked me if I was an attorney and I said no your Honor and she said you should become one. Unfortunately right now though I finished my probation a long time ago, I have to now prove I am a derivative citizen through my father and then I can attempt to start my law career, I will start reading your blog to see what it’s about. I can’t remember where I was reading this but we all should strive to add to the net happiness in the world and I believe you are doing that.

  28. Truelife31,

    Shon Hopwood proves that all things are possible. You have the beginnings of a similar story. Good luck!

    All the best.


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