Only six states will prosecute all youth under 18 as adults. States are continuing to raise the age for juvenile court jurisdiction, which supporters argue lowers taxpayer costs and reduces recidivism.
Texas state Rep. Gene Wu is frustrated. State legislatures around the U.S. are voting to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles while his own state remains in a shrinking — and he says wrongheaded — club that charges them as adults, no matter the crime, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Neighboring Louisiana acted last year, as did South Carolina, leaving just seven states nationwide that still prosecute all youth under 18 as adults. This month, New York made it six, joining the wave deciding that helping kids get their lives back on track is better than giving them a criminal record in the adult system. New York, which had automatically treated even 16-year-olds as adults, enacted a sweeping overhaul that included raising the age to 18, effective next year.
Yesterday, Wu and his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives voted by 82-62 to raise the age, giving supporters hope, although it faces an uncertain Senate fate. Similar legislative battles are playing out elsewhere. North Carolina’s House has passed a nearly identical measure, but it faces a potential state Senate roadblock, as does Texas. last month, Michigan’s House enacted the measure, but it died without making it to a Senate vote. In each state, opponents argued that reform measures would cost too much to implement, overrun juvenile justice court systems and could leave dangerous youth on the street. Supporters of the lower age say such fears are nonsense. They cite extensive studies that show the move lowers costs to taxpayers and drastically reduces recidivism rates.
In La Crosse County, Wisconsin, the ‘System of Care’ focuses on schools—the place where police most often come into contact with juvenile offenders. One of a handful of similar programs around the country, it offers middle- and high school students therapy, workshops and counseling to address the kind of behavior that otherwise might have landed them in court.
When a middle school student in La Crosse, Wisconsin, swore at his teacher, he risked a criminal charge that would establish his juvenile record.
But instead of a referral to the juvenile justice system for disorderly conduct, he was accepted into a new program designed to address the root of his behavior and make it less likely to recur.
The program, which involved months of cognitive behavior, appeared to work. He hasn’t reoffended or faced discipline since for other misconduct.
Called “System of Care,” the program is changing the way the county addresses juvenile crime since it was launched November 1. One of only a handful in the country, it focuses on the place police most often came into contact with juvenile offenders:schools
Curt Teff, a La Crosse School District supervisor who helped develop the program, says the aim is to hold students “accountable” for their actions.
“It’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime,” he said.
The collaboration that crosses agency lines spent years in development to address the county’s disproportionate juvenile arrest rate.
System of Care fills a gap between how schools handle misconduct and what the juvenile justice system provides by addressing [troublesome or acting-out] behavior without a ticket or arrest. Stakeholders believe that the program, while still in its infancy, is working, although the extent of its impact could take years to determine.
“If we didn’t do something different, we would continue to see the juvenile arrest rate climb and see more kids on supervision,” said Bridget Todd-Robbins, who oversees the System of Care.
“The ultimate goal is to reduce barriers to learning and to reduce the amount of referrals to juvenile justice.”
‘Call to action’
Between 1997 and 2006, La Crosse County’s juvenile arrest rate was higher than the state average and those of three similar-size counties, according to a study by the Carey Group, a consulting firm retained in 2008 to examine the country’s juvenile justice system–although few juveniles were committed to the Department of Corrections. The consultants also hinted that minority juveniles may be over-represented in the juvenile system.
“It was surprising and absolutely concerning,” said Mandy Bisek, who supervised the county’s Juvenile Justice Unit until taking over Justice Support Services. “It was a call to action.”
In 2013, stakeholders in the justice system, police, schools and community members formed the Juvenile Justice Arrest and Disproportionate Minority Contact Inter-Agency Task Force. State Department of Justice data revealed the arrest pattern continued in each year between 2007 and 2011.
While whites were the most-arrested racial group, black youths had the highest arrest rate each year and were nine times more likely to be arrested than whites.
The leading arrest charge was disorderly conduct.
About 62 percent of juvenile arrests occurred on weekdays and 25 percent of those were at public schools.
About one-third of cases referred to the criminal justice system resulted in the juvenile being counseled without formal charges. Juveniles were placed on supervision in about 16 percent of cases.
A majority of juveniles cited or referred for charges were not high-risk offenders; they engaged in impulsive behavior that’s typical of adolescent development, Teff said. But there are risks involved if a juvenile enters the justice system, including continued criminal behavior and a decreased chance of graduation.
The Inter-Agency Task force found that without a clear policy on the type of misconduct that warrants arrest and with few arrest alternatives, juveniles were being pushed into the system in a misguided approach to get them help.
It recommended creating a formalized agreement between schools, police and the juvenile system for clear guidelines on when to arrest a juvenile and when to offer a different intervention.
For guidance, the county turned to Clayton County (Ga.) Chief Judge Steven Teske, who helped establish the country’s first System of Care.
Juvenile arrests in Clayton County skyrocketed more than 1,000 percent between 1996 and 2003, after the school district stationed police inside schools. The problem, Teske said, was that officers had no alternatives to arrest.
“They acted like street cops on a school campus,” he said. “I saw all of these cases and juveniles being detained and I thought, ‘Something has to give. This isn’t right.’”
Research showed that arresting and jailing low-risk juvenile offenders increases their likelihood to reoffend and that many will age out of delinquent conduct, Teske said.
“Kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things,” he said. “And when we arrested them, we were contributing to making them worse.”
In 2003, when Clayton County adopted a memorandum of understanding between the court system, police and school district to reduce juvenile arrests by offering alternatives that held kids accountable while addressing the root cause of the misconduct, school arrests plummeted 54 percent in six months.
“It goes to show how many arrests were for minor offenses,” he said. “And that was the problem.”
By offering students workshops to address conflict and theft, drug treatment and wrap-around services for families, juvenile arrests in schools have fallen 71 percent since 2003, while graduation rates rose 30 percent, Teske said.
“The System of Care seeks to help kids who need it,” he said. “We identify causes for the behavior and match them with resources so they can develop coping skills that will help them function in school.”
In La Crosse, the System of Care is built on a partnership involving the La Crosse School District, La Crosse police and the county juvenile justice system. Students who skip school, steal, hit, damage property or are disorderly while on school property during school hours are eligible for the program.
Juveniles who commit those offenses while on supervision for other crimes are not.
The program is voluntary and requires consent from parents and victims. Each offender must undergo a risk and needs assessment that will determine what led to the behavior and how to correct it.
“Overall, they’re just kids,” Longfellow Middle School Associate Principal Jon Baudek said. “But there are kids making bad choices over and over again.”
Students may be offered counseling, mentoring, anger management training, drug treatment, mental health counseling and, along with their families, referrals to other services for ongoing support. System of Care’s Todd-Robbins also is working with school staff to remove barriers to learning.
“It is not about excusing behavior,” Todd-Robbins said. “It’s about addressing behavior through skill development.”
Some 29 juveniles have enrolled in the System of Care between its November launch and late March. Most of those accepted into the program are middle school students, and truancy, punishable by a citation, was the leading offense.
“I have kids who haven’t been to school yet this year,” she said.
The early results have been encouraging. Truant students are back in class and others who faced repeated referrals for discipline now have none.
Todd-Robbins hopes to establish the System of Care as a nonprofit organization so that it would be eligible for grant funding and could expand to neighboring school districts and include offenses students commit off school property.
To address disproportionate minority contact, school district administrators, teachers, social workers, police and others who come into contact with juveniles can participate in the La Crosse YWCA’s racial justice training series to recognize and change how personal biases and prejudice, even on a unconscious level, affect how they deal with kids.
“The issue isn’t always the kid, but how we’re perceiving the behavior,” said YWCA’s Social Justice and Advocacy Director Molly Hilligoss. “If we can look at how we react in our situation and realize our own biases, we can counteract those biases.
“Hopefully, we can continue to lessen the disproportionate minority contact and mitigate the bias.”
Anne Jungen, a staff writer for the LaCrosse Tribune, was a 2015-2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This article, part of her fellowship reporting project, is a slightly condensed version of a story published earlier this month. Read the full version here. Anne welcomes comments from readers.
The average length of juvenile suspects’ detentions has risen by 40 percent or more in some areas says Nate Balis of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.
Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, has sounded an alarm about a slowing of progress and an increase in the length of time youth are being incarcerated in some of the 300 sites of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Speaking at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Foundation-sponsored initiative (JDAI), Balis noted that much of the rapid growth in reducing youth incarceration happened between 2002 and 2012, but that progress is slowing.
The average length of detention has increased in some sites by 40 percent or more. “These days, most detention facilities have empty beds, so the need to move kids out can feel less urgent. That’s understandable, but it’s not consistent with [the initiative’s] values.” The project “works much better when law enforcement is actively involved,” Balis said, adding that, “In many sites law enforcement leaders are not. That needs to change. … Most importantly, law enforcement is the key player at the stage of the system where racial and ethnic disparities are by far the greatest. If we are ever going to make wholesale improvements in racial equity, law enforcement just has to be actively at the table.”
Vote by the state legislature leaves North Carolina as the only state still prosecuting 16- and 17-year olds as adults. The New York change doesn’t go into effect until October 2018.
New York State legislators voted Sunday night to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, giving supporters of the measure victory after years of frustration, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The vote leaves North Carolina as the only state that still prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. That may change this month. Juvenile justice and mental health experts, backed by research showing that trying minors as adults causes lasting damage to the teens and the community, have succeeded in raising the age to at least 17 in virtually every state. New York had clung to laws charging offenders as young as 16 as adults for even minor offenses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has spent years pushing for the change, which has been thwarted by concerns about costs and by some lawmakers who felt the measure would lead to an increase in crime.
The campaign was bolstered by advocacy groups led by Jennifer March of Citizens’ Committee for Children-New York, Naomi Post of the Children’s Defense Fund-New York, and Paige Pierce of Families Together. Marc Schindler of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), said New York was late adopting the age increase despite its reputation as being progressive on justice issues. Last month, JPI issued a study showing that states that have raised the age of criminal responsibility have seen reductions in crime and better outcomes for youth when they are charged as juveniles. The law, which will not take effect until October 2018, means that anyone under 18 charged with crimes will automatically be entered into the juvenile justice system. Prosecutors can still petition to send offenders to the adult system for the most serious crimes.
New study contends that when it comes to committing crimes, 17-year-olds are much more similar to 16-year-olds than to adults.
When it comes to committing crimes, 17-year-olds are much more similar to 16-year-olds than to adults, says a new study released in Texas by advocates urging lawmakers to treat those under 18 as juveniles in the criminal justice system, reports the Dallas Morning News. Texas is one of seven states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. State Rep. Harold Dutton has filed a bill that would bring Texas in line with most other states and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. Advocates of raising the age argue that 17-year-olds’ brains are less well-developed than those of adults and that 17-year-olds are more likely to successfully complete rehabilitation and avoid more criminal behavior if they are sent to the juvenile system. Critics worry that adding 17-year-olds to the caseload would overburden the already struggling juvenile probation system.
The study said arrests of 17-year-olds have been dropping since 2008, falling by 17 percent from 2013 to 2015. The drop-off in arrests for 16-year-olds has been even steeper, falling by 26 percent during the same period. Juvenile justice advocates attribute the steeper drop in younger offenses to the state’s increased emphasis on treatment for minors in the juvenile justice system. The study noted that 16- and 17-year-olds commit similar types of crimes. Both were most often charged with theft, drug possession and assault. “Research shows that many of the programs most effective at reducing re-offending require parental involvement,” said Marc Levin of Right on Crime.
The tragic suicide of Ben Van Zandt, a youth tried as an adult, adds pressure on NY legislators to raise the age of criminal responsibility. New York is one of the few remaining states which still treats offenders as young as 17 as adults.
Alicia Barraza started her testimony with statistics.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds who serve time in New York’s adult facilities are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, she said matter-of-factly. Looking straight ahead at a panel of New York state senators, she explained that juveniles in adult facilities are 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon, are most at risk of sexual assault, and are 36 percent more likely to commit suicide.
Then, after a brief pause, her voice softened. She looked down, gathered herself and took a deep breath.
“Tragically, all these things happened to Ben,” Barraza said, referring to her son.
The senators who had remained nearly four hours into testimony on a cold early February afternoon in Albany grimaced, watching her recount in excruciating detail all the institutional decisions that led to her son’s rape, confinement to solitary and, ultimately, to his death.
“He tried to complain but instead he was threatened with his life if he did not keep his mouth shut,” she said.
Barraza’s son, Ben Van Zandt, was 21 when he committed suicide in New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility after serving nearly four years in adult facilities.
Van Zandt was arrested at age 17 for arson. Like all 16- and 17-year-olds in New York state, he was charged as an adult. This set off a cascade of events that are now being litigated in three separate lawsuits.
What is certain is that had he been 15 at the time of his arrest or, put differently, had the state of New York treated Ben as a juvenile instead of an adult:
He never would have been put into an adult facility;
He never would have been put into solitary confinement;
He never would have been denied his mental health medications;
He would have had access to a host of therapy and mental health services.
Whether he still would have killed himself given this alternate timeline is uncertain. But Ben’s parents think their son would be alive today if New York had already raised the age of criminal responsibility, when a person is automatically treated as an adult, to 18.
Ben’s parents, Barraza and Douglas Van Zandt, are not the faces usually associated with advocacy around this issue.
The poster child for Raise the Age is a black or Latino youth from one of New York City’s tougher, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Part of the reason they are being politically active, they say, is to let people know this could happen to anyone’s child who gets enmeshed in the state’s criminal justice system.
Barraza testified just two weeks after their son’s death.
New York is one of only two states in the nation — the other is North Carolina — that automatically tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. For the third year in a row, many in New York are working to raise the age to 18.
The proposed legislation would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, except for certain serious crimes such as murder and some violent felonies. It would prohibit the placement of teenagers under 18 in an adult jail or prison. It creates a youth court for juvenile offenders. It also expands the existing youthful offender law to allow persons up to 20 years old.
Similar legislation has come up in Albany before and been shot down. The real challenge, advocates say, will be in the Senate, where upstate counties, many of which are Republican, prefer a “tough-on-crime” approach to legislation.
The 31 Republicans have the ability to defeat the legislation. To pass, advocates need to win the support of at least two Republicans.
Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, a Republican, is chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, which has legislative oversight of proposals seeking to amend correction, penal and executive laws.
Negotiations are continuing this week over the issue, he said, and he’s “hopeful” an agreement can be reached. Conversations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the assembly have been “productive.”
“While I recognize that 16 and 17 year olds are different from adults and that changes to our current system may be appropriate, public safety is paramount,” he said in a statement issued this week.
“In determining whether an individual case should be handled in family court or a criminal court, we must ensure that people who commit violent crimes and prey upon our communities are held accountable for their actions,” Gallivan said in the statement.
“At the same time, we should ensure appropriate services are available for 16- and 17-year-olds in an effort to reduce recidivism and encourage a law abiding, responsible and successful future.”
John Flanagan, leader of the Senate Republicans, declined to comment for this story.
Outside the hearing room, in the hallway of the Legislative Building in Albany, about 20 protesters said the case against current law and in favor of raise the age is resoundingly a moral one. Some openly considered risking going to jail for criminal trespass after the sergeant-at-arms in charge of security told them they couldn’t bring the signs into the hearing room. Four hours of testimony from reformers, experts, prosecutors and defense attorneys further illustrated how contentious and controversial the issue remains in the state.
The Albany hearing where Barraza testified was just one example of a flurry of recent activity around the momentum to raise the age.
In New York City on Jan. 19, the City Council held a joint public committee hearing on raising the age to help advance the state effort while protesters outside held a rally calling for change.
“As a speaker of the New York State Assembly and a father, there is no greater legislature priority,” Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, said at the press conference announcing the bill’s passage. “We have a moral obligation to confront the faults in the system that exacerbates the economic and racial disparity that disproportionately affects low-income individuals.”
The case for raising the age
In North Carolina, there is also a push to change the law. In Texas, some legislators and advocates want to move the criminal age of responsibility to 18. Texas is one of seven states that still treat 17-year-olds as adults.
On the other end of the reform spectrum is Connecticut. Connecticut enacted the kind of legislation being considered this year in New York and it was so effective there is now a push to move the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 21. That campaign is being driven both by the success of their 2010 legislation and by findings in developmental brain science that shows young people’s brains are still developing well past their teens.
When young people are in the adult justice system, they and their communities are less safe than they could be. In places that have not yet raised the age, a generation of youth will continue to face challenges transitioning to adulthood because of their exposure to the adult justice system.
The report highlights the successes of states that have recently raised the age and provides a road map for containing costs, enhancing public safety and providing young people with services they need.
While some have pointed to the need — and associated cost — to build additional juvenile court facilities, Tami Steckler, a Legal Aid Society attorney in charge of the juvenile rights practice in New York City, said squabbles about where the future raise the age law should be applied is a distraction. She argues that family court law and services can be administered anywhere.
The buildings don’t matter, she said, it’s the family court law and training and availability of services that matter. Family court law already exists to help these kids, she added.
“We don’t let them drink, we don’t let them vote,” she said. “And we don’t do that for a reason, right? Because we say their brains work differently, they don’t work the same way and they can’t process the things that require them vote or maybe drink. The same thing should be true in a criminal justice proceeding. Their brains work differently. Family court is built to address that issue.”
Energy around the legislation has been growing. Although many supporters are now more confident than they have been before, many are still cautious.
The young man who paced back and forth behind the metal police barricades on an overcast and cold March afternoon in New York City is among the cautious.
He was leading chants and buoying the spirits of those at a rally to raise awareness of the legislation, imploring the public to put pressure on their state senators to turn the bill into a law.
He wanted everyone passing by on Broadway in Lower Manhattan to know what happened to his dead brother. He had a bullhorn in his hand to make sure they could hear him loud and clear.
“I want to make sure we keep saying my brother’s name,” he said to the dozens of assembled protesters on the sidewalk near City Hall. “What’s his name?” he barked into the megaphone.
The protesters said the young man’s name in a uncoordinated mumble.
He raised the bullhorn to his mouth again.
“A little bit louder!”
This time the protesters shouted the name so that it could be heard on the other side of the street.
The young man with the bullhorn is Akeem Browder, brother to Kalief, whose name has become synonymous with the perils of not moving to raise the age.
At 16, Kalief Browder was arrested for stealing a backpack and spent three years on Riker’s Island, two of those years in solitary confinement.
“My brother suffered on Rikers Island for three years for a backpack, something that is commonly considered a mistake,” Browder said, speaking to a father passing by the rally with a young son in tow.
“And he ended up coming home tortured, battered and broken and hung himself, killed himself,” he said. “So we’re here to raise the age awareness because we have a bill that we want to get passed so that the city doesn’t treat our kids as adults and looks at them as the kids that they are.”
Since his brother’s suicide, Akeem, 34, has dedicated his life to reforming what he sees as New York’s broken criminal justice system, particularly the parts that he said led to his brother’s incarceration for stealing a backpack. Part of that broken system is what he calls the state’s “shameful” reluctance to raise the age.
He too knows first-hand what it’s like to be a teenager thrown into the system.
“I myself was on Rikers,” Browder said. “I was 14 and sent to Rikers for an alleged crime.”
He was confused with a 27-year old wanted for a series of crimes, he said. Law enforcement later caught the right perpetrator, the charges were dropped and he was eventually released. But the damage was done.
“Four months, man, four months I spent in that torture factory,” he said. “For a 14-year-old, four months is your life. When you’re inside they treat you like an animal. When they release you, you come back home like an animal.”
Browder shares the worries of many who have been advocating for the legislation. This year, an additional fear is that the legislation might get so watered down it won’t be effective in redirecting teenagers away from the adult system, he said.
There has been a lot of talk in Albany, Browder said, about keeping those charged with violent offenses out of the proposed legislation. He called this a misleading and politically charged term.
“All these titles separate us, and they want to separate more by saying this is a violent or nonviolent crime,” Browder said, adding that police routinely give individuals harsher charges at the time of arrest. However, grand juries tend to indict only on lesser charges, he said, meaning that individuals categorized as violent offenders at the time of arrest are tried only for nonviolent charges.
Kalief would have been considered a violent offender even though all he was actually accused of was stealing a backpack, based on his charges, he said.
“We need to shut it down so we can understand that the funds that we use can actually be for real treatment or real correction instead of putting them in jail and having to fight for their lives,” he said.
Darren Mack, program coordinator at The Center for Justice at Columbia University, told the crowd at the City Hall rally that he was just 17 when he was arrested in Brooklyn for a robbery in 1992. He said he is still haunted by the bus trip he took across what is known to inmates as the Bridge of Pain, the bridge that leads to Rikers Island, New York’s largest jail complex.
“I spent 19 months of hell in the Abu Ghraib of New York City,” he said.
“Our laws forbade me to buy alcohol at 17 years old, our laws forbade me to serve enlist the military to serve our country at 17 years old, the law forbade me to do so many things at 17 years old,” he added. “But when it came to punishing me, the law treated me as an adult.”
This latest push comes as progressives and conservatives nationally forged an unlikely ideological coalition in recent years over a shared commitment to criminal justice reform. Raising the age has been a centerpiece of that reform since it has shown results in lowering recidivism over the long term. That satisfies both fiscal conservatives on the right looking to save money and limit government overreach and progressive activists on the left who see children thrown behind bars as one of the pressing moral civil rights issues.
“We are cautiously optimistic on this third try, but it feels like having talked about it for three years has actually helped, that it was something that legislators, constituents, staffers, people in general really needed to learn more about and understand,” said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the Citizens Committee for Children.
“The bill is almost 200 pages, so it is something that actually takes time to digest and understand, and we’re very hopeful that we will come through this session with legislation that passes.”
That budding coalition has seen a number of uneven gains across the country in recent years. Some of those gains have occurred in New York, where Cuomo signed an executive order removing 16- and 17-year-olds from adult prisons and another offering an executive pardon to people who were arrested when they were 16 or 17 for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies but remained crime-free for 10 years, both in December 2015.
“We spent all of these years believing that if we punished every offender enough without any relief in the future, every crime would disappear,” Cuomo said in 2015, during the state’s second attempt to raise the age.
“What we ultimately did was give a life sentence of stigmatization to kids who made a mistake and drive more people towards crime, because society told them for the rest of their lives that that’s what they were — criminals,” he said. “This initiative is about validating the personal commitment of people who turned their lives around and rejected crime in exchange for being a contributing member of society.”
“Maybe we’re wearing them down,” Van Zandt said after the long Albany hearing Feb. 7. “That last group there,” he said referring to a mix of lobbying groups representing state counties, probation and welfare organizations, “they all seemed to be in favor of raising the age, but they were just looking at the funding aspect.”
That underscores a huge part of the resistance to the bill — money for changing the system. That’s partly due to local politics, ideological gaps between New York City and the dense surrounding areas in Westchester and Nassau County and the more rural counties upstate and in eastern Long Island.
Van Zandt said he found those arguments specious when he can point to other states that are both more rural than New York and much poorer that have made the change.
“It’s odd that you have states like Louisiana, West Virginia, Mississippi and they all have the age of criminal responsibility higher, yet New York state is saying, ‘Well, we can’t afford it,’ Van Zandt said. “I think that’s kind of an unfortunate excuse, you know. Everybody’s worried about the money.”
In 2015 Cuomo set aside $135 million to raise the age. But now, as the issue is still up for debate, it remains unclear how much will be set aside in the budget for the measure if it passes.
“New York state is feeling the pressure of maybe being the last one to make this change,” said Alicia Barraza, Van Zandt’s wife and Ben’s mother. “We’ve always thought of New York state as being progressive and yet to not have passed this bill when the rest of the country doesn’t treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, well, it’s shameful,” she added. “Who wants to be the last state in the country to make that change?”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
‘THIS IS IT. THANK YOU, LORD’
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.”
‘IT’S NOT GOING TO BE THAT EASY’
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.
‘THANKING GOD FOR MY SECOND CHANCE’
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.”
‘STUCK LIVING BETWEEN TWO LIVES’
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.”
‘A WONDERFUL LIFE AND GREAT KIDS’
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.”
‘I AM A MAN THAT WAS DEALT A BAD HAND’
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 Jacksonville.com. The full story, additional articles, and a photo album can be accessed here. Tessa welcomes readers’ comments.