The Unfinished Business of Juvenile Justice

Most states, with some notable exceptions, have raised the age at which youths are exposed to the adult justice system. But the harder task of improving services for troubled young people is still ahead, warns a Justice Policy Institute expert.

Lawmakers in New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and Texas are currently debating proposals that would move 16-or-17-year-olds (or both) out of the adult criminal justice system and into the juvenile court.

This development comes after seven states raised their age of jurisdiction over the past decade. In those states, as a result, half the number of youth who were previously automatically sent to  adult courts now appear before a juvenile court judge—an outcome which  increases the likelihood that a young person will move past delinquency, and avoid the abuse and harm youth can face in adult facilities.

The governors of New York and North Carolina support “raise the age” proposals.  Now, with a new report issued by the Justice Policy Institute, legislators have evidence that states which made the shift experienced improved public safety and youth-development outcomes, all without overwhelming their juvenile justice systems.

But even with these advances, no state “finishes” the process of building a more effective youth justice system simply by changing a law. Policymaking is an ongoing process of continued improvement and of adopting approaches that will help youth succeed.

For those states that have “raised the age,” and have managed the change without increasing juvenile corrections costs, the next phase of reform will involve revamping their “reinvestment” approach – and stepping up support to serve youth in the community.

There are a number of reasons why Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts served tens of thousands of more teenagers in their courts and corrections systems without seeing costs spike.  The juvenile crime decline that the latest national data says is continuing played a big role in helping these three states absorb new populations of youth without overwhelming the system, which should help persuade New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas to make the shift.

There is another reason why states that have already changed the age of juvenile jurisdiction were able to keep costs in check.  They took parallel steps to reduce reliance on the most expensive, least effective ways to address a young persons’ behavior.

The most effective youth justice system approaches are focused on serving more youth in the community and reallocating existing resources to support youth and their families at-home.  By diverting more youth from the courts, improving how probation and aftercare processes work, ramping up treatment for youth in the community if they need it, and using strategies to keep youth out of pretrial detention and youth facilities, youth justice systems can manage raising the age of jurisdiction while keeping corrections costs in check.

But unfortunately, just because facilities close it does not mean that all of the dollars saved are reinvested in strategies to help youth succeed.

Connecticut and Illinois raised the age for 16-or-17-year-olds (or both) in the past decade, and significantly downsized the deep end of their correctional continuum.  But in both states, cuts to children’s health, housing, education and workforce development threaten to undermine efforts to serve youth through the “right door”—through strong schools, mental health treatment if they need it, and by organizations staffed by people from young people’s own communities.  

As the Justice Policy Institute interviewed stakeholders in the states that led the raise the age trend, we heard that years of tightening budgets might mean cuts to youth-serving systems that could inadvertently undermine the very approaches that can reduce reliance on the most expensive parts of the youth justice continuum.

Youth corrections budgets—even probation and aftercare budgets—are relatively small compared to mental health, education, workforce development, human services and housing.  When a young person isn’t deeply involved in the justice system, other child-serving agencies coordinate resources, and harness multiple funding streams to address a young person’s needs in their community.

Taxpayers are already paying for an infrastructure to serve young people in the community.  Ideally, stakeholders who fund and run community based services outside of the justice system should coordinate with juvenile justice agencies to provide the support that young people need to make it less likely they will reoffend.

Research has also shown for a decade that youth are less likely to reoffend when they are served by the youth justice system rather than the adult system – something that will save us all money by curbing downstream crime costs.

The community-based approaches that were key to Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts avoiding a spike in costs as they raised the age are less expensive than confinement; but they are not free.

Jason Ziedenberg

Lawmakers in New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas should vote to raise the age this year. But after lawmakers celebrate the bill signing, they need to be focused on coordinating and supporting efforts to sustain the community-based approaches designed to address what any young person – justice involved, or not—needs to thrive.

Doing so will result in successful implementation of a move to raise the age.

Jason Ziedenberg is the Research and Policy Director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies. He is a coauthor of Raising the Age: Shifting to a More Effective Juvenile Justice System. He welcomes readers’ comments.



‘I’m Sorry For Stealing the Joy From Your Lives’

In the final day of his resentencing hearing, Evan Miller, convicted for murder at 14, apologized to the family of the victim. Miller was the defendant in the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that juvenile life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide.

Evan Miller apologized to the family of his victim “for stealing the joy from your lives”  as a three-day resentencing hearing ended yesterday.

Miller is seeking a chance at eventual release five years after his case prompted the Supreme Court to strike down automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles.

He was 14 when he killed neighbor Cole Cannon in 2003, and the statement he read this afternoon was the first acknowledgment of guilt Cannon‘s family has heard.

“Your dad, Cole Cannon, didn‘t deserve what happened to him,” Miller said. He added, “I‘m sorry for this whole ordeal. I‘m sorry for taking a huge part of your family.”

But saying that “isn‘t enough,”  he continued. “I want to be more. I want to do more than just an apology. To be truly sorry, you have to make amends.”

He expressed hope that the “chain of pain and hatred” could be broken, “and I can make amends.

“I‘m sorry once again for stealing the joy from your lives,” he said.

Miller is asking an Alabama judge to revisit his sentence, which was automatically applied after his conviction on capital murder charges in 2006. He delivered his statement after lawyers for the Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the Supreme Court, presented their final witnesses. He didn‘t give it under oath or subject to cross-examination, and Cannon‘s family called it late and weak.

“That could have been done almost 14 years ago,” Cannon‘s daughter, Candy Cheatham, told reporters afterward. “You can say words and not mean them, and that‘s exactly what he did.”

Cheatham said Miller‘s apology “is going to look good for him to say now, when he‘s looking at a chance for a judge to give him a different sentence.”

“I don‘t feel he accepted responsibility … I think the apology was coached, rehearsed and insincere.”

Miller, now 28, and another teen robbed Cannon and beat him with a baseball bat before they set his trailer ablaze and left him to die in the fire. Much of the testimony this week recounted Miller‘s upbringing in a family rife with physical beatings, drug abuse and neglect.

The final witness, Dr. George Davis, connected that background to the development of the adolescent brain — the neuroscience that underpinned the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama and its predecessors.

Davis, the chief of psychiatry for New Mexico‘s child welfare agency, said the part of the brain that guides rational decision-making doesn‘t reach “dependable, functional capacity” until someone is in their late teens or early 20s. When complete, that frontal lobe and its prefrontal cortex inhibits impulsive, emotional reactions.

“You”ll get an inhibition of emotional overreaction,” he said. “You will get the capacity to plan ahead, to foresee consequences, to strategize about the best way to get something accomplished. The frontal lobe will also do things like take different kinds of facts or factors into account, compare them and decide between them.”

A 14-year-old “is still at the beginning of that process,” Davis said. And that development is complicated by neglect, abuse and drugs, which shadowed Miller‘s entire life before the 2003 killing.

Under cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney questioned why Miller ended up a killer while his older brother and sister didn‘t. Davis said children from the same family often react differently to the same circumstances, but boys tend to respond much more aggressively than girls.

And while Miller ultimately killed a man, Davis said he saw no pattern of violence from his behavior before his arrest — and saw signs of improvement in the records when he was taken away from his family, both in a 17-month stint in foster care and after the killing.

“There are times at which I looked at Evan‘s record and thought that incarcerating him probably saved his life,” Davis said.

The Miller decision barred only the automatic application of life without parole for juveniles, which means Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig could pronounce the same sentence after this week‘s proceedings. State prosecutors argued Miller earned that original sentence, and it should be reaffirmed.

Craig said he won‘t issue a decision this week and will need some time to review the extensive documents and reports introduced as evidence. But he pledged, “I will do my best to render a just and appropriate verdict.”

Earlier, Miller‘s lawyers put on a series of witnesses to demonstrate that he should get a chance at eventual release.

Miller‘s onetime foster mother, Robin Brown, testified that Miller “understands what he did and that he had to be punished for it.”

“He‘s hopeful and still young and has a lot of life possibly left in him, and he”‘s expressed a desire to do something good with it,” Brown said. When she mentioned that one day Miller might show some “forgiveness of himself,” Cannon‘s relatives exchanged disbelieving looks on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Brown‘s daughter, Tiffani Alldredge, testified Tuesday that Miller, his sister and brother were the only foster kids with whom her family kept in touch. Under cross-examination, Brown said she didn‘t recall a fight in which Miller choked her then-preteen daughter or comments to the family‘s social workers that she was ready to “give up” on all three children. She said the fight would have been documented as a matter of routine, “and of course that would have been addressed.”

A childhood friend, Patrick Hitt, described the Miller kids”‘ parental supervision as “nonexistent.” The family frequently was short of food, lacked power and once nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning by trying to use a charcoal grill to heat the house indoors” a story Miller‘s sister, Aubrey Goldstein, had recounted earlier.

He should have stayed in foster care,” Hitt said. “In foster care, I wasn‘t going to see him every day, but I knew he was being taken care of … I think if he was in foster care, he would still be out today and doing OK.”

Hope Berryman, a social worker who saw Miller regularly in the months before the killing, said Miller had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity, conduct and substance abuse disorders. She called him intelligent, but less mature than other kids his age.

Both Miller and his mother would be visibly intoxicated in some of their meetings, and Miller had “explosive” emotional outbursts “ but she was “shocked and disappointed” when she heard her client had been charged with capital murder.

“I had never seen any indication that Evan would have done what was done that night, and I felt disappointed that I had not been able to be more of a catalyst for change in his life,” Berryman said.

Prosecutors have tried to punch holes in the defense by pointing out Miller had racked up a series of violations in his decade-plus in prison. They include discipline for possession of contraband items like paint, cigars and cellphones, which Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney said Miller once used to send a nude video of himself to a contact outside the walls.

But David Wise, Miller‘s former warden, said Miller wasn‘t one of his big concerns at the maximum-security St. Clair lockup, outside Birmingham.

“Although it‘s not perfect, it‘s my opinion that a lot of his disciplinary history is on the lines of a mischievous child in high school,” Wise said.

While Miller broke some rules, “which is not good,” he wasn”‘t involved in violent incidents — which Wise called “a way of life” among the prison‘s roughly 1,200 inmates.

Miller is housed in an “honor dorm” for prisoners who have exhibited good behavior and have been on a maintenance detail. Barry Black, who teaches welding to inmates at St. Clair, said Miller “always has a good attitude”and is “always respectful to me and other people.”

While inmates serving life without parole aren‘t eligible to take vocational classes in Alabama prisons, Black said he knew Miller because he has been on a maintenance detail at the prison, and Black has been teaching him to weld on the side.

“He came into this system at a young age. I really don‘t know how he‘s turned out as well as he has, to be honest with you,” Black said. He said he‘s never before testified on behalf of an inmate, but “I feel like Evan deserves another chance.”

Editor’s Note: See earlier story on Miller’s court appearance Monday here.

The Crime Report is pleased to publish this edited version of a story published yesterday in partnership with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers juvenile justice issues.  Readers’ comments are welcome.


Two Families Bound By Tragedy as Convicted Teen Killer Seeks Resentencing

The resentencing hearing for Evan Miller, convicted of murdering a neighbor when he was 14, opened in Alabama this week. Miller was the defendant in the 2012 Supreme Court case that ended juvenile life without parole.

 The man at the center of the Supreme Court’s historic 2012 Miller v Alabama ruling that struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder has begun a court battle to win a reduced sentence after 14 years behind bars.

Evan Miller, now 28, was 14 when he robbed a neighbor, Cole Cannon, set his mobile home on fire, and left him for dead.

But over his time in prison, Miller has grown into an intelligent man hoping to one day help others in danger of repeating his mistakes, his sister Aubrey Miller Goldstein testified as his long-awaited resentencing hearing began yesterday in a Moulton, Alabama courtroom.

“He’s remarkably well-balanced. Intelligent. Poetic,” Goldstein said, after telling wrenching stories of growing up with drug-addicted parents, seemingly random beatings and a string of evictions from roach-ridden homes. “He’s a deep thinker. He’s reflective, contemplative — and remorseful.

“He wants good to come from this,” she added. “He wants to be able to help others, to stop it before it happens. To help troubled teens, troubled youth. He would do very well.”

The Miller case was one of two brought before the Supreme Court to challenge automatic life-without-parole sentences of juveniles convicted of murder. The second centered on Kuntrell Jackson, who was involved in a 1999 Arkansas video store robbery when he was 14 that left one person dead.

Building on an earlier Court decision in Graham v Florida that dropped life-without-parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses,  Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, cited the Court’s opinion in the 2010 decision that “because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments,” and applied it to the more serious crime of murder.

“By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes,” Kagan wrote.  “The mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. “

Miller’s court appearance is a painful reprise of events that have riven two families. Prosecutors hoping to keep Miller locked up for good have been sketching a portrait of an unrepentant, manipulative inmate unchanged by his years behind bars.

Cannon’s family members aren’t buying any talk of repentance.

“It’s as if I keep being slapped in the face with constant, unbearable grief,” Cannon’s youngest daughter, Jodie Fuller, testified Monday.

In more than two hours of testimony, Goldstein said her father, David Miller, was a truck driver who spent most of the week on the road. He would come home seething, “almost looking for something to get angry about,” and beat them with a leather belt with a heavy buckle — an accessory Goldstein said her father wore as a weapon.

The boys — younger brother Evan and older brother John—occasionally got kicked with his steel-toed boots, too.

“It could happen every day. It could happen more than once a day,” she said.

Goldstein said she has a finger that doesn’t move properly due to damage to one of her knuckles from that belt. Evan, the youngest, had a seemingly permanent welt across one buttock, “the perfect shape of a belt.”

Their father once killed a kitten that had urinated on the kitchen floor, slamming it against a wall and forcing his children to watch as it died.

Goldstein recounted these stories in a soft, even tone, struggling for composure only when she recounted the constant filth and roaches. The family left cleaning to her when she was barely out of kindergarten.

Miller sat tight-lipped during the proceedings, dressed in gray-and-white prison stripes. He grimaced occasionally as his sister testified, glancing occasionally at the spectators’ benches.

The family moved from house to house, racking up a chain of evictions across several north Alabama towns. Child welfare agencies in four counties had files on the family — documents that Miller’s lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative, which won the Supreme Court decision on his behalf, presented to the judge to buttress Goldstein’s testimony.

The cops were called several times, including once when older brother John took refuge at a neighbor’s house and the neighbor faced their father down with a shotgun to protect him, Goldstein said.

But their mother repeatedly refused to press charges, even when her husband threatened her with a gun. Goldstein recounted hiding behind a police car after calling officers to their home in that incident, only to have the officer tell her there was nothing he could do.

She was 11 at the time.

Meanwhile, she said, their mother told the children horror stories about foster care to keep them from telling the truth about what was happening at home.

The children finally were taken away when her father bruised her eye the night before Goldstein and her younger brother went to a summer camp run by child welfare authorities. They spent 17 months with a foster family – a stretch that saw the children get basics like clothes and regular meals, as well as structure and rational discipline.

“The Millers let us love them,” said Tiffani Alldredge, whose parents took in the children. “Out of all the foster siblings we ever had, they were the only ones who let us love them and loved us back.”

However, on cross-examination, Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney pointed to reports that Evan Miller once tried to choke Alldredge during a fight over a basketball game, and his foster parents noted in reports that the boy “lies so much I can’t believe him.”

Alldredge said she didn’t remember the childhood fight.

Prosecutors also introduced Miller’s prison disciplinary record, which listed infractions for jailhouse tattoos and possession of a contraband cell phone.

While her kids were in foster care, Suzi Miller left her husband. She got supervised visits with the children, and eventually got custody of them. They went to live with her in a mobile home park where Goldstein said drug use was rampant and the home was “chaos.”

Evan had flourished in foster care and didn’t want to go back. And soon, everyone in the family was drinking, smoking pot or using speed. And that put them on a collision course with Cannon, who was trying to turn around his own struggle with alcoholism, his children testified.

He had to sign his home over to their mother to keep the bank from taking it, leaving him renting a trailer in a mobile home park next to the Millers.

On the witness stand Monday, Cannon’s two daughters and son recounted how they struggled to move on since their father’s killing — particularly since the Supreme Court tossed out Miller’s original sentence nearly five years ago, they said.

“All I have heard from EJI is, ‘Evan was just a child.’ Well, so was I,” Fuller said.

Fuller, sister Candy Cheatham and brother Sandy Cannon told of homecoming pageants, weddings and birthdays at which their father was absent, grandchildren asking about the “Pawpaw Cole” they’ll never meet.

“He has a name,” Cheatham said, looking directly at Miller. “In many documents, in many statements, in many hearings, his name has not been mentioned … but his name was Cole Cannon. He was a person.”

Fuller said her father’s death sent her into a spiral of depression and substance abuse. But she recovered and became a police officer, and said Miller could have made similar choices. Instead, she said, her father’s killer hasn’t shown any remorse, “and I don’t think he ever will.”

“I truly believe with his lack of remorse that he will kill again if he’s ever released from prison,” Fuller said.

The Crime Report is pleased to publish this edited version of a story published yesterday  in partnership with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers juvenile justice issues.  Readers’ comments are welcome.



Waiting for Justice: Still No Reprieve for Terrence Graham

The young man at the center of the Supreme Court’s landmark Graham v Florida ruling on juvenile lifers is still behind bars. But former inmates from around the country tell Terrence Graham the court’s 2010 ban on sentencing juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses to life without parole saved their lives.

Terrence Graham receives hand-written notes from men just like him, all across the country. They thank him for their freedom, and tell him he’s changing lives.

One letter writer mentions a family gathering.

“We were sitting next to a young man & his mother who told us he is getting out in 3 months on the Terrance [sic] Graham Law. … He said to tell you thank you so much & you will always be in his prayers.”

In 2010,the  U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Graham v. Florida,  that juveniles can’t be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that aren’t murder. To do so would be cruel and unusual because kids can change, the court said.

As a result, Graham and 128 others like him got a chance for new, shorter sentences. A handful were released.

Graham, the Jacksonville teen whose life sentence led to the landmark decision, reads the letters in prison.

“Any time you can be of some assistance or help somebody, it’s like nourishment to the body,” Graham, now 30, said in an interview at the Florida State Prison at Raiford.

“That’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

Graham will be in his late 30s when he’s free again. His release date, according to the Department of Corrections, is Aug. 27, 2026, though it might be a couple of years earlier with gain time.

For now, he’s more famous around Raiford for his Twix cake than his historic case.

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said it is not an overstatement to say Graham’s case was “groundbreaking for youth involved in the criminal justice system.”

“By striking (life without parole) sentences for youth convicted of non-homicide crimes, the court placed concerns about hope, redemption and rehabilitation at the center of justice policy for young offenders,” Levick said. “Future gains for children involved in the justice system will likewise rest [on] the shoulders of Graham and the early decisions that came with it.”


Graham was 16 when, in 2003, he and two accomplices tried to rob a restaurant using metal pipe. They didn’t get away with any money, but one of the accomplices beat the manager before they left. Graham pleaded guilty for being there and served a year in jail for armed burglary and attempted armed robbery, followed by probation.

An arrest for home invasion robbery when he was 17 constituted a probation violation; and his attorney at the time, Jacksonville attorney Bryan Gowdy,  asked the court for five years. The Department of Corrections recommended four. Prosecutors wanted 30.

The judge gave Graham the maximum: Life without parole.

Like Graham, Gowdy landed unexpectedly in legal history.

He had never worked on a criminal appeals case before October 2006. But that first case would take him to the United States Supreme Court, change the way juveniles in the adult system nationwide are sentenced, and alter his perspective and career forever.

“I think the first thing that struck all of us, and perhaps it struck us because we were primarily civil lawyers, was just, a ‘Really? Really? A juvenile, non-homicide and he gets life without parole?’” Gowdy said.

“It was shocking, putting aside being a lawyer, it was just shocking that that was going on. So I think we recognized it was a shocking practice and that maybe the justices higher up would want to review it.”

Gowdy dug in. He appealed Graham’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepted it in May 2009.

“There was no stopping Bryan,” said Mary Graham, Terrence’s mother, who likened Gowdy to a pitbull. He’s brilliant, she said, but with “swagger.”

Gowdy says his perspective as a civil attorney led to him approaching Graham’s case in a new way.

“I used to represent big banks, and corporations, and when we had a case with a $100 million (at stake), we unearthed everything,” he said.

“Well, I just applied those same principles to a kid who was effectively facing death in prison.”

Gowdy argued that a life without parole sentence for a non-homicide crime was cruel and unusual punishment. Amicus briefs poured in, arguing that kids are different and kids can change.

The new approach worked. On May 17, 2010, the court said life without parole is an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile, calling it “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In writing the opinion for the 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “The Eighth Amendment does not foreclose the possibility that persons convicted of non-homicide crimes committed before adulthood will remain behind bars for life. It does forbid States from making the judgment at the outset that those offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”

Graham heard about the ruling after being called in from a prison yard game of flag football

“When I answered the phone, it was Mr. Gowdy’s assistant,” he said. “‘I’m calling to tell you the results came in. You won.’”

He asked, “You serious?”


Terrence Smith was in a common area of the Wakulla Correctional Institute in Crawfordville on May 17, 2010, when Katie Couric reported the ruling on the CBS Evening News.

“Today in a new ruling,” Couric read, “the court said juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole unless they killed someone.”

“I jumped up in the TV area, ran to my room, told my roommate to get out, and I just got on my knees,” Smith said. “The tears just came down, like, ‘This is it. Thank you, Lord.’”

Smith, of Tallahassee, was 17 when he was charged with armed robbery. He served five years in prison before he violated his probation and was sentenced again in 1994. He thought the most he would get was seven more years. He got life.

After losing all of his appeals, Smith said, reality sank in. Then he heard about Graham v. Florida and found it applied to him. He was released from prison in 2012.

Today Smith is a 49-year-old newlywed. He’s got a 3.8 GPA at Florida A&M University, where he is studying construction engineering part-time while working full-time as a project engineer for a construction and development company.

After his release, he wrote to Graham to thank him, and to encourage him.

“His case was the miracle in my life that I needed,” Smith said, “and it’s the thing in my life that I’m never going to take for granted.”

Of Graham he says, “I just want him to know that through this a lot of good has come about. He really needs to know that.”


After the Supreme Court victory, Gowdy sat him down for a frank talk.

“Look, I don’t want you to think that you’re just going home. It’s not going to be that easy,’” Graham remembered Gowdy as telling him.

“I don’t want you to just get your hopes up.”

The Graham family couldn’t help but feel hopeful. Mary Graham thought her second-oldest boy would finally come home. Terrence Graham was thinking he’d get some leniency since his second set of charges were dropped.

Circuit Judge Lance Day was not lenient.

“All right, Mr. Graham,” he said at the February 2012 re-sentencing, “The Court at this time sentences you to the violent crime of armed burglary with assault or battery to a prison term of 25 years.”

Graham was crushed. For the first time during his nine-year ordeal, he cried.

His mother said Judge Day didn’t want to admit he was wrong.

“We beat him in a mighty way and we made him look bad,” she said.

Since his incarceration, Graham said, three of his closest friends have been killed. His two younger brothers have been locked up, too. He’s worried he won’t have a relationship with his young nieces, and he can feel the distance growing between him and the rest of his family.

He sees his parents aging, and he wonders if they’ll be healthy — or alive, even — when he’s finally released.


Jacksonville native Lavon Butler thought “my life would end in prison.”

Now 45, Butler, was 16 in 1988 when he shot a police officer. The officer survived with no lasting injuries, and Butler was sent to spend the rest of his life in prison.

When, under Graham v. Florida he became eligible for resentencing, Butler was a trusted prison worker, running the canteen, and had earned a number of program certificates.

The judge who resentenced Butler in 2014 was moved by his efforts to better himself and gave him 25 years, which he’d already served.

Today he’s living in Sarasota, working full-time. He’s married, has dogs and rides a motorcycle. He’s always upbeat about life.

Butler said he’d tell Graham, “’Don’t give up. Stay positive. Work them programs.’ He has to show everybody that he has changed beyond a shadow or a measure of a doubt.”

He said, “I wake up every day thanking God for my second chance. I’m blessed. It’s through Graham; he was the vehicle who allowed my blessing.”


Graham can go months without a visit or a phone call, but any time there’s renewed attention on his case, people come back around. He knows people on the outside don’t always know what to say to him, but anything is better than nothing.

“I guess they feel like they don’t know what to tell me or the pain of not being able to do anything or say anything to make the situation better,” Graham said. “They tend to run away from it.

“That hurts the most. In this situation, you tend to seek love. I want to hear from my family. I want to see my family.”

LaTonya Hall, Graham’s best friend, said she’s never seen him so down. The usually positive, uplifting Graham is worn down.

“The whole time he’s been there, he’s always helped me out tremendously from there. Always been been there for me, always more worried about me and what I have going on and my kids. More than himself,” Hall said.

“Now, I just think he’s getting real tired, and it’s leading to frustration. But this is the first time in this whole time that he’s been like that.”

Graham says he feels like he’s in a tug-of-war between planning goals for his future while still fighting his case. He still hopes he can see his sentence reduced further, so he can go to college and get his degree in business management sooner. He wants to have his writing published, and maybe turned into a movie or TV show. He wants to speak to teens about his story.

He wants to own a home, get married and have kids.

“The more time I spend in here, the more those dreams and goals become dull. I’m stuck living between two lives,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of things I would like to experience in life and there’s a possibility that I have to keep in mind that I may not get out of prison. … The shorter it gets, the further it is away.”


Ralph Brazel, one of those released because of the 2013 graham case is now married with children, and regularly speaks to teens about his life story. Photo Courtesy Florida Times-Union

Ralph Brazel was one of just a handful of inmates serving life in the federal prison system for non-violent drug crimes committed as a juvenile. Because of Graham, he was released from Federal Correction Institution Jesup in Georgia in 2013 after 22 years behind bars.

Brazel’s uncle, Ronald “Romeo” Mathis, was one of Florida’s most notorious drug kingpins until his arrest in 1991. Brazel was involved in his uncle’s operation as a minor, and received three life sentences in federal court for sales and possession of crack cocaine and conspiracy to distribute crack.

The Graham case “was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Brazel, 43. “When you look at it, going in as a teenager, they’re telling me society no longer wants me and I’ll be in prison for the rest of my life.”

Brazel is living in Southern California and is the operations manager at a local mosque. He’s married with a one-year-old son and five step-children. Brazel said he never lost hope that he’d get out and have a family, even after his two-year-old son was beaten to death by his mother’s then-boyfriend and that man was sentenced to less time than he was.

“I don’t have any complaints,” Brazel said. “I have a wonderful life and great kids. That’s a tremendous blessing.”


When Graham v. Florida was decided, there were 129 juveniles serving life without parole for non-homicide offenses. Of those, 77 were in Florida and the rest were in 10 other states and the federal system, according to the court’s opinion.

Graham and nine other black men from Duval County were serving life without parole for non-homicides, according to a list provided by the public defender’s office. Nine have been re-sentenced, and only one — Butler — had his sentenced reduced enough to be released. Excluding Graham, the remaining seven can expect to be in their 60s or older when they are finally released.

Though attention given the case has waned, its ramifications endure.

Stephen Harper, director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University’s College of Law, said Graham’s case expanded on a 2005 decision that ended the death penalty for children.

With Graham, the court settled a debate: Is it death that is different, or is it kids?

“That sealed the fact that kids are different,” Harper said. “It changed the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court and made the fact that kids are different a part of constitutional law.”

Rob Mason, director of juvenile public defenders in the Jacksonville area, said sentencing children to life without parole is another kind of “death sentence.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Graham alerted the states — particularly Florida — that juvenile sentencing and incarceration required a major overhaul.

Graham provides hope for immature, peer-driven, impulsive juveniles by affording them a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” Mason said.

Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said that Graham, and cases that followed it, brought hope to many who were told as children that they would die in prison.

Miller v. Alabama in 2012, for example, said mandatory life without parole for juveniles, even for homicide, was unconstitutional. There are currently around 2,500 people nationwide serving juvenile life without parole. Lavy’s group wants to abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles.

“Hundreds have been resentenced and dozens have returned home to their communities after proving they were deserving of second chances,” she said.

However, Graham v. Florida does not mean a juvenile still can’t serve a life sentence for a non-homicide. The court wrote that defendants like Graham must be given some “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”


The reality of Graham’s childhood was laid out in the first sentences of the Supreme Court’s opinion: “Graham’s parents were addicted to crack cocaine, and their drug use persisted in his early years. Graham was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in elementary school. He began drinking alcohol and using tobacco at age 9 and smoked marijuana at age 13.”

He says, “Our house was where everybody came to get high at. They used to run all the kids out and it could get to the point where we didn’t eat all day.” He says he said to himself, “One day I’m going to get out of this environment.’”

More than 12 years after receiving a life sentence, Graham is the first of his brothers to earn his high school diploma, and he did it behind bars.

He’s also completed AA- and NA-style classes to show he’s bettered himself, even though he wasn’t an addict. He works cooking for prison staff five days a week, and he reads voraciously. One day, he’d like to publish a book, or have a film made based off a script he’s written.

Looking back, Graham says, “It’s been some type of experience.”

Most days, he doesn’t care about being the Graham of Graham v. Florida. He’s gotten used to being addressed as “Terrance,” the common mispelling of his name that’s followed him since 2003. He forgets about it all until a new letter comes in the mail or a newspaper mentions his name.

Last week, Graham sent a letter of his own.

“It gets so hard in here sometimes that I just wish that I can die and get it over with instead of watching life pass me by. … Now I just want to live long enough to get out of here and show everyone that I am a man that was dealt a bad hand in life but overcame it, and can be someone positive and productive in society.”

Tessa Duvall, a staff writer for The Florida Times-Union, is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. The above is an abridged version of a story prepared as part of her Fellowship project and published on  The full story, additional articles, and a photo album can be accessed here. Tessa welcomes readers’ comments.


“Raising the Age” for Juvenile Courts Has Helped Cut Crime

Since 2007, the number of teens nationally who were automatically excluded from adult courts has been cut in half, from 175,000 to under 90,000 today.

More states are dropping laws that automatically bump teenagers from juvenile courts when they reach a certain age. Such moves abandon a model of punishment proved to be expensive, ineffective and not flexible enough to improve outcomes for offenders or society, says a new study from the Justice Policy Institute, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reports. States that raised the “age of jurisdiction,” the point where a teenager can no longer access the juvenile system and must be treated as an adult, no matter the crime, have seen decreases in crime.

States that have increased the age of jurisdiction, typically from 16 to 18 years old, faced complaints from opponents worried that their juvenile system would be inundated with new cases and could collapse under the strain. That hasn’t happened. The research shows that since 2007, the number of teens nationally who were automatically excluded from adult courts has been cut in half, from 175,000 to under 90,000 today. Researchers noted that juvenile crime continues to fall and that tens of millions of dollars originally earmarked for youth detention have been diverted to treatment and education, helping to reduce crime. Last year Louisiana and South Carolina changed their laws to allow offenders as old as 17 to remain in juvenile courts. Massachusetts, Illinois and Connecticut predicted that raising the age of jurisdiction would result in much higher costs to taxpayers than actually occurred.


In Reversal, Phila. DA Seeks Life Terms in Youth Cases

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams made national news and got wide praise after he said he would no longer seek sentences of life without parole for juveniles. Now he says he will ask courts for such penalties in at least three cases.

Last June, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams made national news and got wide praise after he said he would no longer seek sentences of life without parole for juveniles. “It’s my goal to give all of these individuals some light at the end of the tunnel,” he said then, discussing the resentencings required by a pair of Supreme Court decisions that found automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional and required states to apply that ruling retroactively. Philadelphia is home to 300 juvenile lifers, more than any other city, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Now, his office has told a federal court that it intends to seek life without parole in at least three of the cases it has reviewed so far.  It has made offers in 89 other cases; 71 of the offers would make the defendants, who already have served 35 years or more, eligible for immediate parole. One of the three facing a life sentence once again is Andre Martin, who was 15 years old when he fatally shot a police officer, John Trettin, in 1976. Both the defense lawyer and the prosecutor at the time were intent on making their names on this case, “a crime that shocked the city.” Williams spokesman Cameron Kline said the prosecutor “prefers not to seek sentences of life without parole, but there will always be exceptions. The office looks at each case individually and makes sentencing offers based on the evidence, defendant’s history, and the law, among other factors.” Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association, which is representing more than two-thirds of the city’s juvenile lifers, said the reversal surprised him.


Overwhelmed by Fighting, Ohio Library Turns Away Solo Kids

An escalation in crime and disruptive behavior prompted the public library in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid to require adult chaperones for those under 18 who visit after school. Local police have logged 156 incidents at the library in the past two years, with half resulting in arrests.

Overwhelmed by fighting, petty crime and misbehavior, the public library in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid instituted a policy this week to turn away unattended youths who flock to the facility after school to await rides from care-givers. reports the local police department counted 156 incidents at the library over the two-year period. Most occurred weekdays around school-dismissal time. Nearly half of the incidents resulted in an arrest. Seventy-two of the cases involved juveniles.

Library Director Kacie Armstrong said disruptive behavior has escalated recently, prompting the facility to require chaperones for youths who wish to visit after school. Those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult between 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. “We have been really disturbed and very concerned about the number of fights,” she said. Police officers were on hand in front of and inside the library Wednesday, when the chaperone policy took effect.


When a Juvenile Goes to Jail, Should Parents Foot the Bill?

Mothers and fathers are billed for their children’s incarceration by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies. Advocates have begun to challenge this payment system, which dates to the 1970s and ’80s.

Should parents share the financial cost of incarceration of their offspring? The Marshall Project explores this “deeply entrenched social policy” dating from the 1970s and ’80s. Today, mothers and fathers are billed for their children’s incarceration — in jails, detention centers, court-ordered treatment facilities, training schools or disciplinary camps — by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies, while in at least 28 other states, individual counties can legally do the same.

Groups of law students, juvenile defense lawyers and others have begun to challenge this payment system, arguing that it is akin to taxing parents for their child’s loss of liberty — and punishing them with debt. In Philadelphia, the City Council is meeting today to consider abolishing the practice. In California — which incarcerates more children than any other state, at a typical cost to parents of $30 a night — activists have succeeded in getting the practice banned in three counties. Two senators have introduced a bill to ban it statewide. Although proceeds are meager, many juvenile-corrections administrators say the payment system is a way of keeping parents engaged with their children.


Study Links Homelessness With Juvenile Justice System

Each year, nearly 380,000 minors experience ‘unaccompanied’ homelessness, meaning they are homeless and without a parent or guardian for a period of longer than one week, The Coalition for Juvenile Justice makes recommendations about dealing with the problem.

The connection between youth homelessness and the juvenile system is the subject of a new study by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and its partners. The report makes recommendations for policymakers, law enforcement and youth advocates and provides broad insights into a problem that has plagued juveniles for decades, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. As an example, police might grab a homeless teen sleeping on a park bench at 3 a.m. Vagrancy, trespassing or a host of minor offenses can send the youth tumbling into the juvenile justice system. “Each year, nearly 380,000 minors experience ‘unaccompanied’ homelessness — meaning they are homeless and without a parent or guardian — for a period of longer than one week,” the report said. “These young people, much like their adult counterparts, are often cited, arrested, charged, and/or incarcerated instead of being provided with the supports they need. One million youth are also involved with law enforcement or the juvenile justice system each year, an experience that can increase their likelihood of becoming homeless.”

The study, “Addressing the Intersections of Juvenile Justice Involvement and Youth Homelessness: Principles for Change,” points to a form of double punishment many youth experience. They are abused, neglected or mistreated at home. The stress of living in such conditions or already being on the street most of the time create tensions and fear. The teen lashes out at a classmate, a fight ensues and assault charges funnel the youth into the juvenile justice system. Homeless boys and girls often trade sex for shelter, or money to get shelter, and are charged with prostitution. The study examined how innocuous situations lead to the justice system: A teen with a troubled home life stays with a friend’s family, but it’s a long way from his local school. Soon, truancy charges are filed, and another trip to the court system begins. The coalition lists 10 principles, recommendations and guidelines for those dealing with homeless youth who wind up in the justice system.



Senate Starts Again on Juvenile Justice Reform

Speakers at a hearing criticized the practice of incarcerating juveniles for status offenses, actions that aren’t even a crime, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) blocked a reform bill last year over that issue.

Four speakers and a half-dozen members of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday criticized the practice of incarcerating juveniles for status offenses, actions that aren’t even a crime, such as smoking or skipping school against a valid court order, unless you’re a juvenile. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who wasn’t present, single-handedly blocked a juvenile justice reform bill last year solely on that issue, saying judges should retain that option, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Lawmakers and experts spent 90 minutes pounding home a simple message: Passing juvenile justice reform is too important to let it slip away again, especially when all the data shows locking up kids for minor offenses is a terrible idea that increases crime.

“Those who broke laws that apply only to children, such as curfew violators and truants, face particularly great obstacles inside a detention facility,” said chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). “These young people not only will be separated from their families, but also may be confined with much older juvenile delinquents who committed rapes, robberies or murders.” Panelists discussed not only the crime bill but also looked at why some areas in the nation still insist on practices that research shows are more expensive and less successful than treatment and family-oriented care. “Clearly there is a lot of evidence of the harmful effects of incarcerating juveniles, yet we spend more money on that aspect than we do on alternative programs. Why does so much of our country always go for the incarceration model?” asked Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI).