A product of struggle: Court ruling on mandatory life sentences for children

On Jan. 25, for well over 1,000 people in the United States, life suddenly had a lot more hope than it did the day before. This particular morning brought the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a much-awaited case about children who are sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Montgomery v. Louisiana.

This complicated case, filled with information about jurisdictional issues and retroactivity bars, comes down to one specific, important, and widely fought-for change: any person who was sentenced as a child to a life-without-parole sentence can now apply for eventual freedom. This victory was not a gift from the Supreme Court, but a product of years of intense organizing and struggle by inmates sentenced as children, their families and advocates.

Mandatory life sentences for children are truly inhumane, given that science has shown that children can and do change dramatically from 12 years old to 16, to 20, and beyond. They grow, they mature, they learn empathy, and they learn consequences.

This population of “juvenile lifers,” or those serving this death-in-prison sentence from a crime committed as a child, is a relatively small group of people, but they have seen a lot of changes in the past decade.

Just 11 years ago, in 2005, Roper v. Simmons abolished the death penalty for those under 18. In the 2010 case, Graham v. Florida, the Court barred life-without-parole sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes. Just two years later, in 2012, the Court decided Miller v. Florida, which said that a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a child was unconstitutional, and made it clear that a judge using his or her discretion should use this sentence only rarely.

The Court’s 2012 decision in Miller led to the most recent ruling in Montgomery. Because of a lack of clarity in the Miller ruling, some states had been treating as only applying to future cases, and not applying retroactively to those already sentenced as children to die in prison. In Montgomery the court decided once and for all that all states must in fact allow sentence review for all those serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence from crimes committed as children—that it was unconstitutional to do otherwise.

The struggle to end mandatory life sentences for children

Chris Wilson was serving life without parole in Maryland from the age of 17. After a childhood of abuse and trauma, he took to carrying a gun. One day, in a panic, he shot a man who later died. After being sentenced, he was emotionally crushed for several years. Eventually he creating what he called his Master Plan. It included counseling, getting his GED, vocational classes, starting a company, getting out of prison, and going to college.

Through an exceedingly rare motion, Wilson was able to meet again with a judge, who reduced his sentence. Through incredibly hard work and unwavering commitment, Wilson was able to eventually get out of prison. He’s now an entrepreneur in Baltimore with two companies that primarily hire returning citizens; he is also enrolled in the University of Baltimore’s undergraduate business program, as a prestigious Ratliffe entrepreneur fellow.

Wilson is an exceptional human being, but his story of change is not unique. No other country in the world uses this sentence, and groups like The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth fight hard to make this known. In fact, these four decisions coming down from the highest court in the land are due to the people struggling and pushing for these changes.

The Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama civil rights and defense attorney organization, has also fought hard for these changes. EJI is headed up by Bryan Stevenson, an increasingly well-known attorney who recently wrote a New York Times-bestselling book, Just Mercy, to publicize the atrocities going on in our justice system, specifically for those serving these life sentences as children and those on Death Rows across the nation.

Like Chris Wilson, many other prisoners have come out of prison just to get back into the struggle of creating freedoms for those who have none. Many have testified at bill hearings, spoken before conferences, and plead the case before legislators for eliminating extreme sentences for children. Sara Kruzan  also was sentenced to life without parole as a child, yet after her commutation has fought hard for change in the national media and for specific bills in the states. Xavier McElrath-Bey, Sean Taylor, and Charleston White, all former inmates as children, allowed their stories to be advocacy tools in a court brief in Missouri.

The Montgomery v. Louisiana decision is an important step forward that will have a positive impact on thousands of people for years to come.

While we celebrate it, it is important to congratulate and acknowledge those who made it happen. The endless court briefs written for courts all over the country, the support calls of the parents and siblings of those children serving these lifelong sentences, the protests and rallies held and petitions signed in the honor of those serving these sentences — there was truly unquantifiable struggle that led to it.

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