It is hard to believe that it has been 13 years. Thirteen years of courtrooms, appeals, trips to county jails and prisons. Countless hours full of anxiety, fear, terror and dread because of where they put my 17 year old boy and what they were accusing him of. Such a long road full of despair with only a glimmer of hope.
Every exoneree, every inmate who has won an appeal and every inmate who has faced the parole board time after time understands "trying everything". It is no different than banging your head against the wall in solitary confinement, no one hears. Somehow we get up again, we fight again, we try one more time. What happens when you have tried everything? What happens when you have filed appeal after appeal and every time you were shot down? What happens when the justice reform process seems to be moving in slow motion?
That is where we are now. That is the slow motion hell we are enduring now. We have done everything we were supposed to do. We lobbied legislators, called for medical research, gathered information and published report ,after report, after report. We have enlisted the help of human rights advocates the United Nations Campaign for the Rights of a Child and we have powerful advocacy organizations. The kids are still in prison.
Many seem to be satisfied with the fact that laws are changing that will protect future juveniles from egregious adult prison sentences. America seems to forget that there are 10,000 men/women sentenced as juveniles serving functional life sentences in adult prisons all across this nation. We took these young people and locked them away in a box, which we put in the back of the closet, buried and forgotten.
These juvenile inmates have a story to tell. All of those stories are painful, terrifying and some of them are downright outrageous. There are those sentenced as juveniles who never killed anyone, never pulled a trigger and some were not even present when crimes were committed. They are serving life or functional life sentences. There are some who were raised in poverty, abuse, neglect that was so horrific that they believed the only way out was to kill their abuser. There are those who had never been in trouble with the law in their young life, never been disciplined for fighting or violence and they lost their freedom for longer than they had been alive. There were those who had 3 minor drug infractions and they lost 20, 30, 40 years or their life.
Recently there have been articles and stories published telling of peacekeepers, judges and prosecutors who have come to realize how unjust and criminal our justice system has become. Bold men like Preston Shipp, former prosecutor for the Tennessee Attorney General's office, have come forward to advocate on behalf of juvenile's who have been sentenced to adult prisons. After meeting several juvenile offenders in a class he taught in prison he came to know these young people and the stories behind their crimes and their lives. He quit his job. Please see the video at the end of the blog for his story in his own words (thank you Campaign For The Fair Sentencing of Youth).
The Supreme Court has ruled that we have treated juveniles too harshly, states are battling trying to define what that means and still they sit in prison. We don't realize that these young men/women have spent as much, or almost as much, time in prison as they have been alive. Life to a 15 year old is 15 years. Life to a 17 year old is 17 years. They have not lived more so they cannot conceive more. STILL THEY WAIT, while everyone argues about their future, they wait; while legislators concern themselves with re-election or campaign promises, they wait; while America shakes their head but refuses to push for change, they wait.
But when you have tried everything else.......it's all you have to put your hope in.
The highest court of this nation ruled that life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional FOUR years ago for those who did not kill anyone and TWO years ago for those who committed murder yet Colorado has chosen not to address this issue. While Colorado changed the sentence that could be applied (future cases) to these crimes (40 years to life,) the mandatory sentencing structure is still viewed as unconstitutional according the the nation's high court ruling because it does not allow the sentencing court to evaluate and sentence individuals based on age, mental capacity, circumstance or other mitigating factors. Colorado continues to keep felony murder laws on the books, a law that can require a sentencing judge to impose life without parole sentences on a juvenile who was only present or knew of the crime before or after the crime was committed.
Legislation that was to address life without parole for juveniles currently serving these sentences and for those serving functional life sentences will not be introduced this term. Instead the legislators have chosen to wait and see what the Colorado Supreme court has to say on the issue. Those rulings are expected this fall.
Colorado is not the only state in this nation that has not moved to reverse the unconstitutional practice of JLWOP, there are many others. This means that there are states all across this country who are choosing to operate outside of the nation's constitution. They are choosing to break the law and they are not being held accountable while juveniles are serving illegal prison sentences in adult prisons.
There are those trailblazers that have moved to change their sentencing structure and give those who are currently serving these unconstitutional sentences a chance at parole. Washington state, West Virginia, California, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Illinois and Texas have all determined that life without parole sentences are not only illegal but that these rulings apply retroactively and have given guidelines for the parole review and release of juveniles serving life sentences. Colorado has chosen not to be among them.
In addition the UN Council released a scathing report on the human rights abuses that currently happen in the United States with the life sentences imposed on a child topping the list as well as the mass incarceration practices of this nation.
This time of year, around the world, there will be religious celebrations of redemption, of freedom from slavery and oppression and the possibility of being given the chance to start again in a new land, start again with a clean slate. These tenets of faith, whether Christian or Jewish, were meant for everyone. So we must ask ourselves when it became acceptable to throw away a life? God Cries When We Sentence Youth To Die In Prison.
Follow this link to Jonny's Etsy Art Shop