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We Can Hold Youths Accountable Without Life Without Parole

When I was 17, I accepted a plea agreement and 25-year prison sentence to avoid the likelihood of spending the rest of my life in prison.

I had been involved in the death of another person. Prosecutors initially charged me with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and planned to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When they offered instead to allow me to plead guilty to the robbery charge plus facilitating first-degree murder, I quickly agreed. My co-defendant wasn’t so fortunate. He was sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 51 years, plus 25 years.

My home state of Tennessee has yet to ban life without parole for children or penalties that are their functional equivalent. Instead, children who are not yet able to vote, buy cigarettes or join the military are told they are worth nothing more than to die in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has scaled back the use of the most extreme penalties and mandated review opportunities for everyone who, as a child, received a mandatory life without parole order. Yet, as the Associated Press highlighted in a series, where a child committed a crime plays a disproportionately large role in whether their review will truly be meaningful or if they will even have one in a timely manner.

A few days before my arrest, I had been making plans for college, where I hoped to study child development and become a social worker. But I first needed to earn another credit to get out of high school and had asked the younger brother of a fellow gang member to consider enrolling with me.

Once he agreed, we sat around smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. He suggested we act out a scene from a movie. Our plan was go to a convenience store, taking along two guns — one of which was nonfunctioning and the other supposedly had no bullets — to frighten the store employee and anyone who walked up. We’d grab more beer and run.

I agreed to stand watch as he went inside for what seemed like forever. Then I heard gunfire and he ran out. I went into the store and found Mr. Cantrell lying on the floor unresponsive. I ran, and we were arrested a few hours later.

I am deeply remorseful that I had a role in taking the life of another person. I can never repay what I took, and have been inspired to spend my life working to help children avoid the mistakes that I made. I also want to help create a justice system that holds children accountable in age-appropriate ways, accounts for their exposure to trauma and prepares them for reintegration into society.

My story is similar to that of many other youth who have gotten into serious trouble. Throughout my early childhood, I saw my alcoholic father physically abuse my mother. She, my siblings and I were sometimes so afraid that we hid in my bedroom, barricaded the door with furniture and prayed he would never return. I remember one particularly harrowing evening when my mother attempted to escape with the children. He appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, knocked my mother to the ground then grabbed her hair and dragged her through the mud. When she finally broke free, we drove to the police station, where she filed a restraining order against him. I was shaken to my core.

Even after my mother moved us to a new neighborhood, with a new house and a new school, my father showed up drunk late at night, creating lots of noise. The neighbors sometimes came out of their homes just to watch, and neighborhood kids mocked me at school.

By the time I was in sixth grade, though, I began to use academics as an escape from my world. That all changed when we moved again. At the new school, other kids said I spoke up too often in class and studied too much. In an effort to be more like the people around me, I stopped studying and even failed ninth grade. I also became an active gang member. I saw it as a way to end the loneliness.

I developed a practice of ending each school day at lunchtime. Before long, I began transporting and selling marijuana. My mother learned I wasn’t going to class when my high school sent a letter during my senior year, informing her that I had missed so many days of school that I would need to attend summer school in order to graduate.

That led us to that day in 1994, when marijuana, alcohol and the impulsivity of a child with a still-developing brain led me to take part in an unthinkable crime.

While in prison, I grew up. I denounced my gang membership, earned my GED, became a licensed barber and studied psychology and child development. These classes helped me understand the impact of the trauma that I and others had experienced and enabled me to counsel others in denouncing their gang memberships.

In addition, I completed anger management counseling and joined the Parents in Prison group, which helped men focus on the needs of their children. I was not a parent, so I spent the next year thinking about my needs as a child and how those needs could be addressed for children in situations similar to what I had experienced.

On my third visit to the parole board — and after I had served 10 years — the board granted my release. I stayed in Nashville and worked for a barbershop for a while. Then I began volunteering in a local school, working with children who were disruptive in the classroom, teaching them conflict resolution skills and helping them access other services they needed. I was then asked to do this work as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Community Health Corps in Nashville, then as a full-time employee of the agency.

I was later was hired to direct a YMCA of Middle Tennessee outreach program that provided services to 25 to 30 students each year who faced issues similar to what I had experienced as a middle school student. Along the way, I also helped found the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a national network comprised of and led by individuals who went to prison as children for serious crimes and are now out living productive lives. All our members were charged with homicide-related crimes and/or faced life without parole as a child.

My original 25-year sentence expired March 3, 2016. I had no infractions during my 12 years of parole. A year later, I joined the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, where we work to replace life without parole and other extreme penalties for children with age-appropriate accountability that accounts for children’s experiences and unique capacity for change.

I’ve dedicated every day of my free life to demonstrating that I am worthy of this second chance. I’ve tried to make sure fewer families suffer the same losses as the Cantrell family. I’ve poured myself into the lives of many.

And I am not unique. The members of ICAN, which I now help to coordinate, do the same, as do many other formerly incarcerated youth I have never met. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. We just need an opportunity to prove it.

Eric Alexander is youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He is a founder, member and coordinator of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.

Michigan Attorney General to Appeal Order Giving Juvenile Lifers Chance for Parole

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette delivers his address at his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on January 1, 2011
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette delivers his address at his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on January 1, 2011

Michigan’s attorney general announced Monday that he will appeal a federal judge’s order requiring the state to consider paroling about 350 prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

"First-degree murder is a serious crime, and it carries with it serious consequences," AG Bill Schuette said in a news release.

"In every case where a juvenile is sentenced to life in prison, a victim was already sentenced to death – forever. The victim's family then grapples with the aftermath of post-traumatic stress, depression, unyielding grief and visits to a grave."

He said last week’s order would force families of murder victims to “relive the crime that took their loved ones away.”

Schuette said the order called for hearings not required by the U.S. Supreme Court or state courts, adding that “it ignores the authority of state court sentencing judges to object to parole when public safety requires it.”

The order, issued by U.S. District Court Judge John C. O'Meara, applies to inmates who have served at least 10 years.

In an earlier ruling, O’Meara had cited the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama Supreme Court case in which the high court ruled mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In his order, O’Meara cited Miller as well as the 2010 Graham vs. Florida Supreme Court ruling that sentences of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional for crimes other than murder.

The Supreme Court has noted in its rulings that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

O’Meara’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan on behalf of nine Michigan citizens who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

The suit challenged a law requiring that children charged with crimes including first-degree murder be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced to life without parole.

“This is a civil rights action challenging the treatment of youth inconsistent with their status and alleging that their punishment is cruel and unusual,” Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney in the case, told JJIE.org.

LaBelle said courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly made it clear that life without parole for those convicted of crimes they committed as juveniles amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“So we challenged that statute, saying that’s inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling that youths should have a meaningful opportunity for release upon maturation and growth,” she said.

LaBelle expressed shock that Schuette announced plans to appeal O’Meara’s order.

“It’s eternally surprising to me that the state would want to continue to impose punishment that the U.S. Supreme Court has said is cruel and unusual, particularly an attorney general, who’s supposed to be upholding the state and the U.S. Constitution.

“The only argument I’ve heard in support of wanting to fight it is the attorney general continually citing the rights of victims’ families, but they’re not monolithic,” LaBelle said.

“We’ve had many families of victims who support the second chance and the process going forward on a fair basis ... The only way to fairly go forward for all victims’ families is to have an equitable process in which they have a voice.”

Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Washington-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which seeks to end the practice of life without parole for juvenile offenders, praised O’Meara’s ruling and order.

“I think that this is exactly the kind of approach that the Supreme Court intended in its rulings in Miller and in Graham, as it scaled back extreme sentences that have been imposed on young people in our country,” Lavy said.

“In both decisions, the [Supreme Court] emphasized the need for rehabilitation and for accountability measures for children and certainly said repeatedly that because kids are not adults and they are still developing that we can’t impose these final irrevocable judgments on them while they’re still growing and changing, and so we should be able to provide an opportunity to check in on them later in life.”

Lavy criticized the Michigan attorney general’s decision to appeal the order.

“It’s an unfortunate use of Michigan taxpayer dollars that they’re going to spend on litigation rather than focusing energy on fixing a system that the [U.S. Supreme Court] court has ruled unconstitutional,” she said.

Schuette argued the Supreme Court’s rulings should not apply to inmates already in prison. He pointed to the Supreme Court’s 1989 Teague v. Lane ruling, which he said established what’s commonly known as the “Teague Rule,” stipulating that Supreme Court rulings are generally not retroactive in matters of judicial process.

He also cited a state court ruling: In November 2012, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Miller vs. Alabama does not apply retroactively to people convicted of murder as teenagers who have already been found guilty and exhausted their direct appeals.

Schuette also said O’Meara’s ruling could undermine the statutory authority of state judges to block parole for violent criminals when public safety justified doing so.

In his order, O’Meara said Michigan must create an “administrative structure” to determine which inmates should be eligible for parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

The order said those who have served at least 10 years must be given notice that their eligibility for parole “will be considered in a meaningful and realistic manner.”

He ordered the state to comply with the order by Dec. 31.

It also requires the state to:

• Schedule proceedings, including public hearings, for eligible prisoners seeking parole.

• Set up a procedure to determine whether each eligible prisoner’s application should be considered by the entire state Parole Board.

• Ensure the proceedings are “fair, meaningful and realistic.”

• Make certain the Parole Board explains its decision in each case.

O’Meara’s order also forbids vetoes of Parole Board decisions by a judge or anyone else and requires that no prisoner sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile will be deprived of “any educational or training program which is otherwise available to the general prison population.”

If the state fails to comply with the order by Jan. 31, the judge threatened to appoint a special master “to make available to prisoners sentenced to life without parole for juvenile crimes the process this order envisions.”

Sparing Children from Life in Prison without Parole

West Memphis Police Department mug shots of the "West Memphis Three"
West Memphis Police Department mug shots of the "West Memphis Three"

WASHINGTON – Jason Baldwin hopes to spare others from growing up, growing old – and dying – in prison.

Baldwin, who was sentenced to life without parole at 16 for a crime he did not commit, served 18 years and since his release in 2011 has become a crusader against sentencing youths to life without parole. He is one of the “West Memphis Three” – who as teenagers in 1994 were convicted of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark.

The 36-year-old Baldwin, who now lives in Seattle, brought his message to the nation’s capital Wednesday night at an annual reception and fundraiser of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national organization that seeks to abolish life-without-parole sentences for all youth.

Jason Baldwin
Jason Baldwin

“I cannot believe that we are a society where we would place no value in people who have made a mistake --  no matter how terrible -- at a young age,” Baldwin told JJIE.org.

He spoke of convicted murderers he met in prison who in 1994 showed no remorse and who he believed at the time deserved to spend life in prison.

But he said he has seen them transformed over the years.

“I’ve seen them grow, I’ve seen them mature, I’ve seen them take advantage of any opportunity they can to teach themselves, to learn things, to nurture and to be caring and compassionate,” Baldwin said.

He recalls sitting in prison in Arkansas with other inmates convicted of murder.

“I saw them. They led very respectable, responsible lives in prison,” he said. “They took opportunities to educate themselves, to help one another. And that’s the key right there. They helped each other. They helped me. They helped anybody they could, and they cared about people.

“So now these guys who did those things, who exhibited no regard for life, turned around and they showed care, they showed empathy. So they developed those somewhere along the way and will help people and care for people and, if put in the situation they were in to earn their time, they would never do [the same crime] again.”

Baldwin says he’s hopeful society will ultimately decide against life sentences without parole for juveniles.

He points to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Miller vs. Alabama, in which the high court ruled last year that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.

Baldwin, one of four honorees at the CFSY event, found a receptive audience, including people who had been incarcerated as juveniles but have since been released, families of those who have been incarcerated since they were juveniles as well as lawyers and advocates for children.

He says he intends to continue campaigning against life-without-parole sentences for juveniles until they’re abolished.  Baldwin said he has earned an associate’s degree and plans to write a memoir before returning to school to receive a bachelor’s degree, after which he hopes to attend law school.

Healing and Hope, the annual reception and fundraiser of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
Healing and Hope, the annual reception and fundraiser of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Jody Kent Lavy, CFSY’s director and national coordinator, said at the reception that a lot of progress has been made in the past year toward eliminating life-without-parole sentences for children but that big challenges remain.

Lavy noted the Miller vs. Alabama decision and said, “Children who were told they were worth nothing more than death in prison have lawyers and have people fighting for them to get them back into court.”

She pointed out that Delaware, Texas and Wyoming have abolished life without parole for children within the past year.

And, Lavy said, “More policymakers and judges than ever before understand the fundamental differences between children and adults, understand that it is inappropriate and irresponsible to sentence our children to die in prison.”

The Supreme Court has noted juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and young people are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

But the progress notwithstanding, Lavy said state legislatures have passed legislation sanctioning life without parole for children and that some states, including Pennsylvania and Louisiana, have said the Miller decision is not retroactive, meaning it wouldn’t apply to those in prison now who were sentenced as juveniles before the decision.

The others honored at the CFSY reception were:

  • Sara Kruzan, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in California when she was 16 for killing someone who reportedly had sexually abused her for years. Kruzan was released Oct. 31 after a California judge made her immediately eligible for parole. While incarcerated, Kruzan, described as a model prisoner, had mentored women inside and outside prison, earned an associate’s degree and is working on a bachelor’s degree.

  • Participant Media, whose feature film, TV, documentary and other forms of media seek to inspire social change. Participant’s films include “Lincoln,”  “The Help” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” In connection with the release of “Snitch,” the media company collaborated with CFSY on several public education projects, including videos and infographics.

  • WilmerHale, an international law firm whose attorneys visited nearly every prisoner in Virginia affected by the Miller vs. Alabama decision. The firm helped develop legal strategies and filed the first briefs on behalf of clients in Virginia as a leader in CFSY’s project to implement the Supreme Court decision in that state. WilmerHale has long been known for its pro bono work.

A Holiday Gift from Me to You. Really!

As we celebrate Thanksgiving and enter the holiday season, I am reminded of our annual family tradition, one that I imagine is shared by many across the United States. After gathering around the table with our plates piled high with turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings, we take turns sharing what we have been most thankful for during the previous year. The items listed are usually things we’ve had the good fortune to receive — whether they are material and concrete like a new purchase or relaxing vacation or something more abstract, such as the love of family, the company of friends, or recovery from an illness.

Having just returned from Washington, D.C., for meetings and events related to my volunteer work with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), I am rethinking what gives me the greatest satisfaction — and what I am most thankful for. CFSY is a national organization whose goal is to ensure that youth under the age of 18 are never sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives without hope of release. Based on the fundamental physical and emotional differences between youth and adults, CFSY believes that young people convicted of serious crimes should be held accountable for the harm they have caused in a way that reflects their capacity to grow and change. They believe that a just alternative to life in prison without the possibility of parole (JLWOP) is to provide careful periodic reviews to determine whether individuals convicted of crimes as youth continue to pose a threat to the community.

During my visit, I was able to speak with a critical group of supporters of CFSY — parents of children who were murdered by young offenders. These moms and dads, in tears as they told of the loss of their sons and daughters, made it clear that victims and survivors of serious crimes committed by youth endure significant hardship and trauma. They deserve, without question, to be provided with supportive services, and they should be notified about sentencing hearings related to their cases. What I wasn’t completely prepared for, however, was the depth of their commitment to ending JLWOP — even for the young offenders who had killed their own children.

For instance, I spoke with Linda White, whose 26-year-old daughter was killed by two 15-year-olds in 1986. In videos produced by CFSY, Linda has explained her perspective this way:

I understood the concept of getting even, but it seemed to me that it wasn’t quite what we needed. People can change. One of the two juveniles who killed my daughter is still in prison. One is already paroled and he’s a remarkably different person. It will never be about saying to him that it’s OK. He knows even better than I do that it will never be OK.  But that’s not what forgiveness is in an issue like this.

At the CFSY reception that evening, Father Gregory Boyle addressed the group. Father Greg is a Jesuit priest and the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that provides hope to former gang members by offering them free job training, employment opportunities and supportive services ranging from anger management counseling to tattoo removal procedures. Founded in 1988, Homeboy Industries is now the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the United States, assisting up to 1,000 people in any given month.

Father Greg sees his work as a calling. “I don't save people. God saves people,” he has shared in interviews. “I can point them in the right direction. I can say, ‘There's that door. I think if you walked through it, you'd be happier than you are.’” When asked how he can get up every day and smile at kids who use drugs, sell drugs, assault and steal, Father Greg has explained, “I would rather stand in awe of the burdens these kids bear than stand in judgment of the way they bear them.” In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, he tells the story of a homeless, heroin-addicted teenager named David who felt angry and disappointed with himself. “Look, David,” Father Greg told him. “You have to crawl before you can walk, and then walk before you can run.” David replied, his eyes filled with tears, “Yeah, but I know I can fly. I just need to catch a gust of wind.” For tens of thousands of young people, Homeboy Industries is that gust.

Driving back the next day to my home in North Carolina, I reflected upon the “three Ts” of philanthropy: time, talent, and treasure. I had just spent several days away from my husband and young daughters, putting 600 miles on an already beat-up car, sleeping on a friend’s couch, rushing around to meetings in a cold wind, and I realized that I didn’t feel depleted by my efforts but energized and inspired. I was struck by the truth underlying the cliché — that one of the greatest gifts is the opportunity to give of ourselves.

During the ride, I happened to catch a radio interview with Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House International, the largest privately funded agency in the United States and Canada that provides shelter, food and crisis care to homeless kids. When asked how young people become homeless, whether they are runaways or have been thrown out of their homes, Ryan explained that for the vast majority of young people, it’s not a choice: “They're young people whose families imploded, could be because of drugs, could be because of poverty. It could be because a parent died. It could be because of abuse and neglect. Most of the young people who walk in the front door at Covenant House have endured very serious abuse.”

Ryan spoke of a young person who had endured 35 different foster care placements, and then at age 18, the Texas Child Welfare System “graduated him out the door,” ending its services.  “There are more than 26,000 young people every year who leave public child welfare systems in the United States to nothing,” Ryan explained. “To no family, no guardian, no forever anything. It's just the streets.”

The interview concluded with the question of what Covenant House would do if it received unlimited funds from a generous donor.  Kevin Ryan replied that he would expand the agency to serve more homeless kids and start health clinics at the locations that lack them. “Any pediatrician who practices with this group would tell you that the disease profile for homeless kids is quite significant and very worrisome. They look like a population that's much older than 18, 19, 20,” he said. “If we had unlimited resources, I'd want Covenant House to be a bridge to economic opportunity and healing for all the kids who are out there.”

So, when you are approached this holiday season with requests to donate your time, your talent, or your treasure, please remember that the solicitor is actually giving you a gift, rather than the other way around. They are providing you with an opportunity to feel a sense of joy, exuberance and inspiration, for what you will get back is so much more than what you give.

I plan to share these sentiments with my family and friends when we gather for our Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, and I encourage you to do the same. If the adults are distracted and the kids are clamoring for dessert, get their attention the way I did with this column’s headline: announce that you have a holiday gift for everyone.

In fact, now it’s time for you to open my gift. Please click on the links below, give one of the three Ts, and get ready to be inspired.

Appeals Accepted in First Miller Cases

Less than three weeks after a Supreme Court ruling mandated it, an Iowa court gives two inmates the right to appeal the life without parole sentences they were given years ago when they were 17 years old.

“We’re thrilled to see these concrete steps being made,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “They are obviously required to do so,” she added.

The Iowa cases may be the first nationwide re-opened under Miller v. Alabama.

The Supreme Court said in Miller that sentencing judges must consider mitigating factors in dealing with juvenile homicide cases. That invalidates about 2,400 sentences nationwide in federal courts and the 28 states where juveniles have been sent to life without parole under mandatory sentencing schemes. Mandatory sentencing laws ignore age, youth brain development, life history and all other factors.

And now defense attorneys are calling to consult Gordon Allen, who represents Iowa inmate Christine Lockheart.

“The Supreme Court says now the defendant is different and in court we will show how she’s different,” said Allen. He filed with Iowa Court of Appeals a motion for illegal sentencing right after the Miller verdict. The court vacated the sentence on July 11.

Now Allen is preparing Lockheart’s appeal, which he expects will be heard sometime in the next two to five weeks. He also said, however, that he will suggest a plea bargain.

In Iowa at any time attorneys can challenge an illegal sentence, Allen explained, but added that not all states have the same statute.

“If you can’t find it in the rules, make it up,” he advises attorneys.  “This is a Constitutional decision. If you don’t have a motion to correct an illegal sentence, file one anyway.”

He’s communicated via e-mail with Lockheart since the decision and said it was “big news” in prison.

Lockheart was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1985. She had been sitting outside in a truck when her boyfriend went in the home of a Lockheart family friend and killed the older man.

Iowan Thomas Bennett had his sentence for the 1998 shooting death of a Des Moines man vacated the same day as Lockheart.

Allen said, “the mitigating evidence allowed will be quite similar to what’s allowed in a death penalty case.” That is, a very broad list of things will qualify for inclusion, almost anything in a defendant’s history.

He has one other piece of advice for defense attorneys in Miller cases: “You have to be extremely responsible to and aware of victims … The victims are understandably upset their relative is not here and will never be here again.”

The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers brings together grieving families.

“While we understand the tragic consequences to the killers, the entire context of this decision is first and foremost the appalling and senseless murders of our innocent loved ones and the devastation left behind,” said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, NOVJL president, in a statement.  Her organization says Miller reopens the judicial part of their painful ordeals that victim families considered closed.

Photo from The Bilerco Project.