Formerly incarcerated woman turned advocate gets a real chance at a Second Life

Updated: Feb. 12, 2021 at 9:45 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - If you do the crime, you do the time as the old saying goes, but for some former inmates even once they have paid a debt to society, they can still owe an insurmountable debt to the victims of their crime.

FOX 8 speaks with a local woman whose recent Presidential pardon cleared a nearly $2 million restitution debt.

January 20, 2021 was historic for many, but the day was life changing for Syrita Steib. She said, “I know my step is a little lighter, my smile is a little bigger.”

Just after midnight Steib learned she had been granted a pardon by outgoing President Donald Trump. Stieb said, “It’s just like this pardon has completely changed my life. So, I’m just eternally grateful. I thank God that anybody can be used as a vessel to bring forth a blessing.”

It was not the first life altering day for Steib. She recounted her feelings in her teens. Steib said, “I didn’t care. I did not care about the consequences of my actions.”

FOX 8 first introduced us to Steib in 2016. The Vacherie native is the daughter of a plant operator and a judge who seemed to have a charmed life and excelled in school. She recalled, “I graduated high school. Graduated number 10 in my class I had a full scholarship to Xavier in physics and engineering.”

Steib was drawn to bad behavior. She dropped out of school, joined the Navy and while on leave at the age of 19 she and three others stole cars from a Texas dealership then set it on fire.

She was arrested in New Orleans three days later eventually pleading guilty to use of fire to commit a felony in federal court.

Steib said, “But when he said you’re sentenced to 120 months. Didn’t begin to see how much time it really was I couldn’t wrap my mind around 19 I’d be in prison (un)til I was 29.”

The prison time was just the beginning of her sentence. She explained, “I was also sentenced to $1.9 million in restitution, and I have been paying on that restitution for the last 20 years.”

Fox 8 spoke with her just hours after she learned of the pardon that would absolve her of the nearly $2 million debt. Steib said, “It’s actually you know a true fresh start. It removes my criminal conviction, but it also removes the financial burden of paying every month on the restitution.”

During the almost 10 years she spent in federal prisons Steib matured and turned her focus for good. She said, “When I hit 25 a light went off and I said I absolutely can’t go into society the way you came in.”

She started taking college courses during prison. After her release in 2009 she studied at UNO and eventually graduated Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology from LSU while working and starting a family.

Steib said, “If it wasn’t for two women who I was incarcerated with Latrice and Victoria I don’t feel like my re-entry would have been as successful as it has so I wanted to put something together to make sure that I was providing that same service for women who were being released.”

Leading her to found Operation Restoration an organization dedicating to help women with education and work placement on release from prison.

Steib said, “The first policy win of the organization was the “Ban the Box” on college applications here in Louisiana making Louisiana the first state to pass any type of legislation like that.” “The Box” where colleges and universities ask about felony convictions in Louisiana was narrowed to sexual assault and stalking convictions.

Steib believed checking that box prevented her college acceptance when she pursued her education after release.

Her work with Operation Restoration garnered an invitation by the white house to attend a women’s summit in June of 2016.

Stieb continues to push forward with initiatives through Operation Restoration. She said, “We also just had a great win where we’ve been advocating for the restoration of Pell for people who are currently incarcerated. We run a college in prison program with Tulane University at the LA Correctional Institute for Women.”

As a success story Steib is excited to help other women improve their lives after prison, but the restitution still weighed heavily.

“Anything that I was deemed to have in excess could be liable to be taken that meant anything that happened to me that my children would not be provided for, my parents could not leave me anything that they had,” according to Steib.

A situation she expected to live with forever. She said, “I wrote a paper not too long ago about restitution being the new life sentence because you know at 19 I was given this $1.9 million restitution without even a consideration of my earning capacity for the duration of my life.”

I contacted the U.S. Attorney’s office to learn more about how restitution is determined.

Their office replied in part:

“The court must award restitution for the full amount of the victim’s loss, irrespective of the defendant’s ability to pay.”

Under federal law the United States is responsible for providing the amount of victim’s losses to the court.

Prosecutors use information from victims, investigative agents and pre-trial service personnel to help determine the proper amount.

Restitution is designed to directly compensate victims for their monetary losses.”

The Catherine D. Pierson Professor of Law at Tulane University Jancy Hoeffel says restitution can be an effective sentence. She said, “If you ask a victim of a property crime ‘What do you want?’ That may be really all they want.”

According to Hoeffel, “The good side. The pro of restitution is it’s much more like restorative justice.”

She said it can be an opportunity.

“The idea that you would have to do something other than just be warehoused in prison. You would have to repay the victim, maybe go to some type of therapy, meet with the victim and have a mediation. Positively do things that impact your life rather than just sitting in jail which is a big impact also right,” said Hoeffel.

She also said without consideration of the ability to pay it can backfire.

Hoeffel explains, “That person is not going to be able to pay that so what’s the result then they are going to be imprisoned for not paying. If they are on the public dole, they are homeless or really just an average person making an average salary millions of dollars of restitution is just not realistic.”

Hoeffel said often restitution is more of an alternative sentence.

“So, it is a creative penalty. It’s a bit different in Ms. Steib’s case because she also did a lot of time in prison,” she said.

Steib said she spent about a year working on the pardon application. “I had a lot of you know great people who were in support of me actually filing for the pardon,” She said.

Sister Marjorie Hebert head of Catholic Charities, Michael Williamson of the United Way and former Saint Ben Watson are just a few of those that sent letters of support for the clemency.

Steib said, “I knew that they had received it, but yeah I had no idea that I was going to get the call.”

Now that it’s come she says she just wants to continue to spread positive energy.

“Anything that you want to change and you want to do it only takes one person do so. So just you know wanting to encourage other people because you know I didn’t see this for myself a few years ago and here it is.”

Her path now completely clear to use the mistakes of her past to improve the future of others.

The White House statement announcing Steib’s pardon cites her advocacy for criminal justice reform with operation restoration and relieving “the crushing restitution she incurred at such a young age.”

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