JJ Today

The Human Cost of Juvenile Life Sentences

July 02, 2012 by John Lash By John Lash

John LashReceiving a life sentence is a shock. When the judge said to me, in 1985, “I sentence you to life in prison as computed by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles,” I did not really comprehend his words. I was literally in shock.

Afterwards, my attorney met with me briefly. He told me that since I had pleaded guilty and was still a teenager the parole board would probably let me out in seven years. He was wrong. It was almost 25 before I was paroled. Even so, his mistaken prediction gave me hope and helped me keep moving forward. I don’t know how I would have fared without that hope.

As I grew up in prison I began to realize the enormity of my crime, and to work to make myself a better person. I still had a lot of problems within myself, but I believe I could have been safely released after five years or so. I have no doubt that 10 years later, when I was 28, I could have not only re-entered society, but could have contributed to it in many ways. I was a different person, even though I wasn’t exactly sure why.

Years later, I read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. It was my first exposure to ideas about brain development, including how the prefrontal cortex does not develop fully until the 20s. This research has come a long way since the book came out in 1995, and its acceptance into the scientific mainstream arguably is the greatest factor in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that found mandatory juvenile life without parole unconstitutional.

This research has been coupled with the rediscovery that juvenile justice is not just a miniature version of the adult system. Instead, it ideally recognizes that kids are fundamentally different in their development and culpability. This was the notion that led to the formation of juvenile courts in the 19th century, building on the authority of judges under common law to determine an individual child’s maturity.

Early on, judges had more discretion to evaluate individual cases. Monday’s ruling returns some of that power, mandating that the child’s age and other factors be taken into account. It does not end the practice of life sentences, or even life without parole for kids, but it at least gives a chance for someone to consider these things.

In my own case, the judge met my parents in the parking lot after my sentencing. He expressed his sorrow to them that there was no option for me but to receive a life sentence or the death penalty. He would have preferred another alternative.

When I saw the news on Monday morning, I felt a great sense of hope for all of those kids, more than 2,500, who have received such a sentence. Some of them are grown men now. One gentleman in Louisiana, Robert Howard, has been incarcerated in Louisiana since 1963. He was 15 when he was sentenced. Some are still juveniles.

The first person I thought about was Lamar Culpepper, a man I have met through my writing these columns. Lamar is a speaker and trainer, specializing in leadership skills and communication. He travels the country teaching these skills, usually to business people, but today he also shares them with prisoners and correctional staff. He has been involved with the End Violence Project, and he has developed his own evidence-based, cognitive program for prisoners, Freedom at the Wall: the Power of Choice. He is passionate about anyone’s ability to take charge of their lives and decisions.

I thought about Lamar because his son, Dominic, received life without parole in Florida 11 years ago, when he was 14. The events that led to the killing of Wesley McCool, Dominic’s victim, and the subsequent sentencing of Dominic, woke Lamar up to a world he had not considered. He began to turn his energies towards making sure that this kind of violence was put to an end. He does this through teaching what makes real choice available, and the awareness that we all have the power to make responsible choices in the moment and in the face of any circumstances.

Dominic too has been working. He was offered a plea bargain that would have given him a 25-year sentence, but like a lot of kids in his situation he went to court instead. He has not grown bitter, but instead has been doing what it takes to face up to his situation with maturity and grace, and to continue to grow as a human being in a very tough environment. He has accepted full responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame anyone else. When I told him about the court’s ruling, a ruling that could perhaps set him free, he began to cry. “Wesley McCool doesn’t get a second chance, like me,” he said.

His dad speaks a lot about the lack of opportunities to help these kids, in prison or out. “Consider the cost to us, humanity, the wasted human potential, especially for young juveniles,” he told me. He works to deliver evidence-based strategies that work, and encourages others to do the same. Whether we throw these kids away or not, they remain a part of us, a part of our society.

The nuances of this decision are still percolating through the media. Blog posts and expert analysis are parsing the words of the decision and of the three dissents. It is not only a legal exercise though, neither to the victims nor to the authors of these terrible crimes, this is very real.

The court’s decision came 11 years to the day from Dominic’s crime. Lamar was leading a public training workshop on communication, and when he returned from the workshop to his hotel the news awaited him. “I was overjoyed, shocked…” he said.

Waves of euphoria swept over him. His son, who as a boy had been sentenced to die in prison, now has a chance to one day be free.

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