Juvenile Life Without Parole

We cannot consider ourselves a great nation when the most vulnerable among us are denied the support needed to survive and thrive.

Kenneth Young was just 14 years old when his mother’s drug dealer forced him to participate in a series of armed robberies. Kenneth was caught, convicted, and sentenced to four consecutive life sentences—a juvenile thrown behind bars with no chance of release. A flicker of hope arrived in 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence a child to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime.

Kenneth Young’s story and his plea for redemption under the Graham ruling are chronicled in 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story, a PBS documentary airing as part of the network’s POV series and available online through September 3.

His story resonates especially strongly with me, because my oldest son had a very similar experience. Ralph was arrested at age 17 and charged as part of a drug ring led by adults that included more than 30 people.

Because of his youth, loyalty, and lack of maturity, he refused to testify against others; he was convicted and given three life-without-parole sentences. He was told he would die in prison. But thanks to the Graham ruling, last year—after almost 22 years in federal prison—Ralph was set free, just weeks before his 40th birthday.

My son and Kenneth Young are among the approximately 2,500 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes that occurred when they were children. The majority of people serving these sentences are people of color and those from low-income communities. Many were coerced into crime by misguided adults, underestimated the consequences of their actions, and sought absent love in all the wrong places—from gang members and on street corners.

They were not “little adults” when arrested and convicted. These children, many neglected and abused, need a society that does not discard them for life because of their youthful mistakes and wrongdoing.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled three times in the last decade that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be given our country’s harshest punishments. The most recent decision came just two years ago, when the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional when imposed upon children.

As a mother, I knew that my son’s brain was still maturing. I knew he had potential that was yet to be nurtured and developed. Like many people from the communities most impacted by these extreme sentences, I am also a family member of a person who died as a result of violence committed by a young person.

My nephew was a teenager when he was killed by another teen. I also lost my toddler grandchild—Ralph’s son—to violence while Ralph was incarcerated. Just as I did not support life-without-parole for my child, I do not support it for anyone else’s child.

What would happen if 2014 were declared “The Year of the Child”? Perhaps such a declaration would heighten our focus and commitment across the country to invest in the needs of all children. Too many children suffer neglect and abuse daily. These children need love, nurture, food, shelter, clothing, and a sense of safety.

The United States bears the shameful distinction of being the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison. That distinction must be eliminated. Science shows that children’s brains are still developing and that children possess a unique capacity for change.

We cannot consider ourselves a great nation when the most vulnerable among us are denied the support needed to survive and thrive. We cannot hold our heads high when we ignore the reality that children, even those who commit crimes, can and do change if given the opportunity and the support to do so. Many of us are living proof that positive changes can occur as we mature.

Ralph’s release was just the beginning of our individual and collective healing. Though once erroneously deemed disposable, he has changed and matured into an honorable young man, working to better communities and help steer young people in the right direction. He was given another chance to live as a productive citizen.

That is no more than all children deserve. They deserve for this and every year to be declared “The Year of the Child.”

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Thank you Esi an I applaud you for you love, support an concern about those who are still working to get justice for a loved one behind prison walls. Children do and can change. For anyone who haven't experienced living with the nightmare that their child may die in prison may not understand the pain. I applaud your son for his dedication to help others as well. Many, many Blessings to you and your family.

Love you much,

Lillian, again, thank you for reading & responding to the article. Most of all, thanks for your dedication to continue the fight alongside other family members who hold onto hope that their loved ones will return home.

I think most of us did very stupid things when we were young. The exception to us is we were not caught, or we might be in the same situation as those in jail for things they did as a youth There is no way I would even think about doing some of the things I did back then. As a matter of fact, I can't even believe how stupid I was back then top fall into the traps I did.
May God bless you Esi in the work your are doing. I know your heart is in it 100%

Aslan, I appreciate your time to post comments, which again confirm the recent findings regarding brain development in adolescents. Most of us did some pretty dumb things during our teenage years. Thank you!

The United Nations adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of life without parole for kids in 2006. The vote was 185-1.
The United States was the only dissenter.

That has not helped Richard Wershe Jr who sadly is 27 years into a life sentence for a non violent drug charge.

Davey, I am sad to hear about Richard's dilemma. He is one of far too many who have suffered unnecessarily under unjust sentencing. Thanks for responding.

Cindy, as you know, we must continue to cry aloud against the injustices in this nation. I am honored to be on the team with you, fighting for a fair future for all young people who make bad choices. Thank you!

Well written piece Ms. Mathis! Keep fighting for our children...one life at a time!

"unconstitutional to sentence a child to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime" BRAVO!!
How can you legalize drugs in one part of the country and send others to prison? and to give children life without parole sentencing for non violent crime? It's just plain INJUSTICE!

Ariel, thanks for lending your voice to join many others speaking out against injustice in sentencing.

Let him out! In Jesus name! This makes absolutely no sense. 14 years old? You clearly can see he was influenced by an adult. Shame on the judicial system!

Angela, you are correct - "shame" should certainly be felt among those in the 'justice' system, who condone such harsh sentencing of children.

The policy of handing down life sentences to children is doubly shameful because the United States, more loudly than others, claims to stand above all for freedom and justice.

Paul, thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, "freedom" and "justice" are not equally applied to all citizens in the U.S.

this is a harsh sentence for just a robbery

Nice story. However you should read the real 15 to Life at www.15tolife.com

Thanks so much for sharing your incredible story and amazing art. Both inspire me to continue fighting against the gross injustice in our nation.

Dennis, I appreciate you reading and responding to the article. People like you should be applauded for the hard work in California to correct many of the wrongs inflicted against those who were victimized by the system. Thank you.

is there a circumstance where you would sentence a juvenile to LWOP? In a case where a juvenile committed first degree murder, what sentence would you hand down? I believe that LWOP should remain an option reserved for the worst offenders. Understanding that not every inmate serving life is an actual killer, each case should be considered based on its own facts, rather than ruled unilaterally.

Sean, I think your question is answered within your post: "... not every inmate serving life is an actual killer, each case should be considered based on its own facts, rather than ruled unilaterally." I couldn't agree more. LWOP should never be a 'one size fits all' sentence for anyone convicted of a crime, especially young people with underdeveloped brains. Thank you

Well written and very informative. I was not aware of the tradegies of your nephew and grandson. My admiration of you has heightened since reading this. You've been a conqueror since I've known you (50+ years). Your infallible faith has sustained you throughout your personal trails as well as those of others. Abundant blessings to you, your family and all those you fight for.

Michelle, thank you for reading and responding to the article. Your words of encouragement are invaluable.

Richard Wershe is 27+ years into a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense which occurred when he was a minor (17 years old. Rick was arrested for doing what a drug task force had previously encouraged and paid him to do starting when he was just 14 years old. Why should Rick have to spend another day behind bars for the mistakes he made as a kid??

"In May 1987, when he was 17, Wershe was charged with possession with intent to deliver eight kilos of cocaine, which police had found stashed near his house following a traffic stop. He had the misfortune of being convicted and sentenced under one of the harshest drug statutes ever conceived in the United States, Michigan’s so-called 650 Lifer law, a 1978 act that mandated an automatic prison term of life without parole for the possession of 650 grams or more of cocaine. (The average time served for murder in state prisons in the 1980s was less than 10 years.)

Sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide crimes was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, by which point such sentences were already exceedingly rare; the court was able to locate only 129 inmates serving them nationwide. Michigan eventually acknowledged the failures of the 650 Lifer statute—the governor who signed it into law, William G. Milliken, has called it the greatest mistake of his career—and rolled it back in 1998. Those already serving time became parole eligible and began to be released. Wershe is the only person sentenced under the old law who is still in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile. Prominent and violent kingpins and enforcers from Wershe’s day in Detroit have long since been freed. And yet Wershe has remained incarcerated, for more than 27 years." - From 'The Trials of White Boy Rick' by Evan Hughes. - http://i61.tinypic.com/2q2mq02.jpg

Dave, your comments provide another horrifying example of injustice against youth who made mistakes. It is difficult to fathom why Rick is still in prison, given the info you provided. Hopefully, by now, competent legal representatives are moving his case forward to get him released - soon!

If this is "Punishment" it's the worst. Not unless the person is insane, mentally should this law be used. Every crime has a different past and should be treated as such. Everyone should have a second chance with help from the system and outside persons. It can be done . Not all all are a "Charles Manson" Person or Group. It seems Human Life of our children, young adults means very little.

Jean, thank you for your thoughtful comment, specifically that "Everyone should have a second chance with help from the system and outside persons. It can be done." I agree completely, especially in the cases of youth who make mistakes. They should not suffer forever for those errors in judgement.

When I was around 12 or 13 years old, the most important thing to me was to be accepted by the "big kids" - meaning the older kids. I would do whatever they told me because then they would think I was cool. And they were older, so I trusted them. I never for a second thought get in trouble with law enforcement, let alone prison. I was raised in an affluent part of Connecticut and the most mischievious thing I did was ring a neighbor's doorbell and run at the behest of an 18 year old. But I am no different from Kenneth or Ralph. We all thought the same way. Our actions were influenced by people older than us. Whether we wanted to be one of the cool kids, or wanted their approval. Am I the only one who remembers what it was like to be that age?

They don't deserve life in prison. That is utterly ridiculous. Only an idiot would not be able to come to that same conclusion.

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