Judge Goes From Behind Bench to Behind Bars


March 4, 2006 — -- In his 11 years as an appeals court judge in Minnesota, Roland Amundson faced down robbers, rapists, and murderers, and sent them to prison.

He had no doubts about what he was doing -- none, that is, until he moved from behind the bench to behind bars.

Amundson was one of the most prominent men in Minneapolis. He lectured at law schools and sat on the boards of various charities. In the 1990s, a friend asked him to see over the trust fund of his mentally disabled daughter. That's where his troubles began.

Fifteen years later, he's been stripped of his title, spent more than three years in jail and lives in a low-rent apartment.

But his experience in prison changed him: He's now an advocate for prison reform.

"Do we want rehabilitation? Do we want to lessen crime?" Amundson asked. "What I did, and what judges do today, can only be explained one or two ways -- either by ignorance or incredible callousness."

Amundson took charge of a trust fund belonging to the daughter of a friend in the early 1990s, and soon he started skimming off the top. By the time he was caught, Amundson had used the funds to remodel and redecorate his house -- including adding marble floors, a piano and sculpture.

Even though he spent his days sending other men and women to prison, he said he was never troubled that he was forging checks -- sometimes between court sessions -- on his way to $400,000 of fraud.

"It wasn't me," Amundson said. "It was a disassociation. It wasn't me. I wasn't doing that. I wouldn't do that."

The irony went even further: During sentencing, prosecutors used one of the judge's own opinions against him.

"He had, in fact, one opinion that we used during the sentencing that he had written himself, in which he agreed that you could get a longer sentence if you were preying on a vulnerable victim," said Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar. "And that's what happened in this case."

In 2002, Amundson pled guilty. He was stripped of his title and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison.

While in prison, the former judge says he experienced a profound revelation. He realized, for the first time, that the criminal justice system was failing badly.

"I had no idea how devastating prison was," Amundson said. "I had no idea."

Amundson served three-and-a-half years of his term, moved to a halfway house, and now lives in a low-rent apartment. He devotes himself to getting out the message that the U.S. criminal justice system must change.

"Clearly, prisons don't work," he said. "If you set out to create a system that was more warped and inefficient and malignant, I don't think you could do it better."

"We need to look at diversion programs; we need to keep people out and on the street, paying taxes, with their families," he said. "You're talking about guys that are functionally illiterate, that … don't even know what a checkbook is, who don't know what an alarm clock is.

"These re-entry programs, they're just dumping guys in places, in beds," Amundson added. "You can't just do that. You've got to give them more support."

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