A community leader. A youth mentor. A second chance.
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In partnership with NIJC
Robert Savio Panton was born in Jamacia.
When he was four years old, he came to the United States. Harlem, New York has always been his home.
In 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison for a drug offense.
Robert’s harsh sentence was due to mandatory sentencing enhancements that no longer exist.
Today, Robert might have been sentenced to six years.
Robert spent 30 years in prison, working to improve his life while behind bars.
Then in 2020, Robert worked with his criminal defense attorney to file a “motion to resentence” in efforts to secure his release.
After the judge reviewed the motion, she determined Robert’s combination of rehabilitation, post-conviction achievements, health vulnerabilities to COVID-19, and strong family relations made for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons justifying his release.
In August 2020, Robert was officially granted release by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
He walked out of prison days later into the loving arms of his family as a free man for the first time since January 1991.
“When my petition for release was granted by a federal judge, I remember thinking, “Finally, justice… delayed.”
But on the same day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took him into custody.
“Our legal system has something called ‘double jeopardy,’ you can’t be punished twice for the same crime. Because I am an immigrant, I’m being punished again and again,” Robert said. “Our current laws continue to punish individuals – like me – even after we complete our sentences.”
Because of Robert’s immigration status, he’s facing deportation to a county he barely knows — even after completing his prison sentence.
“The biggest pain is for the people waiting for me—my daughter, son, and sisters. Every day ICE punishes not just me, but my family by keeping us separated.”
Despite Robert’s pre-existing medical respiratory issues, ICE kept Robert in detention for nine months. His ICE detention put him at deadly risk of contracting COVID-19.
“While I wait for my immigration court hearing, I remain in fear. I am afraid that I will contract COVID-19 due to the staff’s failure to adhere to COVID-19 procedures as recommended by the CDC. I thought conditions were bad in federal prison – they are so much worse in immigration detention.”
After nine months in immigration detention, Robert was released but still faces deportation.
He has immersed himself into rebuilding a life alongside his family in Florida and New York City, as well as into his work as a community leader and youth mentor.
He has helped develop the “Too Young to Die” campaign– which offers mentorship and guidance to youth in New York City.
Robert is one of many immigrants who continues to suffer the consequences of harsh civil immigration laws that condition deportation on decisions made in the criminal legal system.
“In my case, the punishment itself has become a crime. It’s time for a new way forward.
The New Way Forward Act would take steps to address this double injustice. I strongly support this effort and feel proud to speak in support of it to the public and Congress.
This is the kind of change we need.”