Six voices calling for fairer sentencing practices for youth
“Seven years ago, my oldest son was murdered by a juvenile. For 16 years I had been on the front lines waging peace in my community and beyond. Six months before, I lost my wife to breast cancer and I’ve lost countless friends to violence. I cannot describe, however, the depth of pain I have from losing my son. I think about him every day.
I know people who have been totally consumed by their anger and pain as a result of losing a loved one. I empathize with them. But to move on with my life and continue to be there for my children, I had to reconcile my son’s murder in my heart. For me, reconciling means accepting that I cannot undo the murder, but I can decide how I want to live afterwards.
Real solutions will unite families and bolster communities. We should provide incentives and opportunities for rehabilitation for teenagers who receive long sentences, so that they can rejoin their communities and become productive members of society. An irrevocable judgment should never be made on a young person, because we know that their brains, not just their bodies, are not yet fully formed. That is why I support efforts to end the practice of sentencing youth to life without parole.”
Aqeela Sherrils has worked for peace in Los Angeles and across the world for the past 16 years. A former member of the Crips gang, he brokered a pivotal peace agreement between the Bloods and the Crips in 1992. He is also the cofounder of the Amer I Can Foundation along with Jim Brown.
“We all know youths who have changed for the better. I was lucky that the shells I stole from a hardware store as a teenager and fired from my .22-caliber rifle never struck anyone. I was fortunate that the fires I set never hurt anyone. I heard my wake-up call and listened — and I went on to have many opportunities to serve my country and my community.
Rather than serving in the U.S. Senate for almost 20 years, or having so many other wonderful life experiences, I could have served a longer sentence in prison for some of the dumb, stupid, asinine and reckless things I did as a teenager. I am grateful to have received a second chance–and I believe our society should make a sustained investment in offering second chances to our youth.
There is simply no way to know at the time of sentencing whether a young person will turn out “good” or “bad.” The only option is to bring him or her before a parole board — after some number of years — and give the person the chance to declare, “I’m a different person today” — and then prove it.
If at that review a parole board finds out that a guy or gal hasn’t changed, then slap ‘em back in the clink. But some juvenile offenders make real efforts while they are in jail, and we should make honest adjustments for them.
When a young person is sent “up the river,” we need to remember that all rivers can change course.”
Alan Simpson was a U.S. senator from Wyoming from 1977 to 1996. He most recently served as the co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
“A lot has changed for me and about me over the years. Mostly my outlook on life. In the past I have been susceptible to the influence of others and I tried to conform to what others thought of as being cool. I lived in the moment; not giving too much thought to consequences or repercussions. I tried my hardest to stay away from home in order to avoid my home life. I liked school but didn’t worry about showing up because I had other things I needed to address. At my sentencing I tried to sum up my life up until that point and how I arrived there. What came to mind was how as a kid I had to act as an adult because of my circumstances.
Being in prison has forced me to re-evaluate my life and choices. I have become an adult, an independent thinker; questioning things which I don’t understand and turning away from things which may jeopardize my well-being. I have learned to be responsible, hard working person who is able to look past what is perceived to be cool and focus on the big picture. I may have missed some valuable lessons on the road to becoming a man due to my confinement but I am able to recognize what is lacking and strive to achieve it.”
Alex is thirty one years old and has been in federal prison for 13 years for a crime committed when he was 15 years old. It is his first time being incarcerated. He is currently writing a coming of age book to give kids some insight into the world of drug dealing, gang member lifestyle and the path that it leads down.
“As State Attorney of the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida for five terms, my prosecutors and I had a great number of cases where juveniles were sentenced to life without parole. Whether it is because of a greater understanding of developing science, the wasteful costs, or merely maturity on my part, I strongly support the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth’s Statement of Principles and your efforts.”
Harry Shorstein served as State Attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, covering Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, from 1991–2009. He was the attorney representing the State during a parole hearing when successful Supreme Court petitioner Terrance Graham, was sentenced to life without parole. Shorstein recommended a 30 year sentence and a 15 year sentence for Graham during that hearing.
“My son was a tall, skinny kid when he was convicted of a violent crime and sentenced to life without parole. I remember when the verdict was read. “We, the Jury, find…GUILTY of capital murder.” The verdict carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole or the death penalty. I remember pleading for my son’s life in front of that Jury. We Moms will do whatever it takes to save our children.
When that verdict was read I don’t know if I was numb or protected by a Divine Force because I clearly knew that my work was not done and that this case was not over just because judgment had been passed by those twelve. We Moms are a force to be reckoned with.
As the years passed, so did the appeals. Finally, after fifteen years there was no longer a legal pathway for the release of my son. Now, if anything were going to be done about the incarceration of my child, I was going to have to find it, become involved in it and help it happen. There were many years of searching for families who shared my story and many years of telling my story to anyone who would listen. Two years ago the Campaign was formed and I became an advocate for their work on behalf of my child and all of the children of JLWOP. This has given my on-going commitment to my son’s release focus and direction. It has meant so much to me to have an organization dedicated to ending this travesty. And it’s a place where families can meet and share experiences. We Moms will never give up until we see justice for every kid.”
Cat Lambert is the mother of a young person serving a life without parole sentence in Alabama. She currently lives in Colorado.
“As a federal prosecutor, I prosecuted violent crimes – gang crimes, rapes, murders, and human trafficking — in two of this country’s most crime-ridden cities. I know very well the impact of crime on our society. As Director of the Post-Conviction Justice Project, I now represent prisoners who were convicted of murder in parole and other post-conviction proceedings. I have worked at both ends of the criminal justice spectrum—at one end, I advocated for prison sentences that I believed would best protect the public and punish the offender. At the other end, I see people who have spent many years in prison for the most serious crimes – some of whom have fully rehabilitated and can safely be released to the community and some of whom have not. What is very clear to me is that you cannot predict how someone will change. It is impossible to know at the front end of a prison sentence who will turn, who will take advantage of rehabilitation opportunities, who will make the decision to become a better person.
Our criminal justice system is out of step with the rest of the world in choosing to “throw away the key” on the youngest offenders with the greatest capacity for change. Sentencing juvenile offenders to die in prison is unnecessary to protect public safety, ignores developing science, wastes precious state and federal resources, and undermines our humanity.”
Heidi Rummel is a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law where she co-directs the Post-Conviction Justice Project, a clinical program in which students advocate for the legal rights of convicted prisoners.
To learn more or get involved with your local campaign to end the practice of sentencing youth to life without parole you can visit the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth website at www.fairsentencingofyouth.org.