Back in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole for any crimes besides murder is cruel and unusual punishment.This week the high court took another look at life in prison, except this time for juveniles under the age of 14 convicted of homicide.
NPR reports that currently 79 people are serving life terms for crimes committed when they were 14 or younger. Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to be the deciding vote on a decision expected by early summer.
Youth Radio’s Reginald Dwayne Betts contributed to an amicus brief in the 2010 Supreme Court case. At 16 years old he was found guilty for car-jacking and spent more than nine years in adult prisons. But his sentence could have put him behind bars for life. This commentary originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, in May 2010.
I remember meeting a guy even younger than I was, waiting for the bus to go to prison. I’ll call him Rashid. His voice still carried the cracks and high notes of adolescence, and his smooth face had never seen a razor. We were headed to Southampton Correctional Center in Virginia.
No fewer than a dozen of us were teenagers, all with peers at home waiting on driver licenses, graduations and proms – while we waited for a prison cell. Rashid’s time was legendary: three life sentences with no chance for parole. It meant he awoke each morning knowing he would one day flat-line in a cell.
In prison, guys told me that Rashid robbed and raped an old lady. His crime had no explanation, and everyone I ever talked to about it thought it was wild, heinous, and unfathomable. Rashid didn’t talk about his charges, and I couldn’t look at him without thinking how his sentence would last until his final breath. In the visiting room, I caught glimpses of his family and it almost seemed normal. Except that Rashid, the youngest among them, rarely smiled. And in prison, surrounded by the violence cells inspire in men, he was just a kid. There was no meanness about him, just the fragility of someone in the deep end, arms flailing, unable to swim.
When I looked at him, I remembered the judge looking down at me, asking if I understood my charges carried a possible life sentence. Rashid wasn’t old enough to drive, vote, or serve on a jury of his peers – but he was old enough to walk out of a courtroom with a sentence that ends in a casket. After I met him, my nine-year sentence for car-jacking seemed like a gift.
Everything I did while incarcerated meant something because I could envision a day when I’d be free, and that vision pushed me. Because I had a release date, I recognized that the time was a way for me to improve myself. Seventeen hours each day to read, study and exercise – to think and become a man far different than the sixteen-old boy who plead guilty to car-jacking.
As teenagers, our lives are impulse and reaction. I’m not the same person I was at 16. No one is. Juvenile offenders who are years away from the maturity and sensibility of a 25 or 30 year old, need to know that society believes they can be more than their crimes. They need to know we believe rehabilitation is not only possible, but real.
All any incarcerated minor wants to believe, is that life can be more than a series of cell doors.
Editor’s Note: Since being released from prison, Reginald Dwayne Betts graduated from the University of Maryland where he served as the commencement speaker. He’s published two books, and this year is the recipient of the NAACP Image Award and a Soros Justice Fellowship.
This story was originally published on TurnstyleNews.com on March 23, 2012.