A recent criminal case in Virginia has received a lot of press—as it should—because of the harsh sentencing of a 15-year-old boy, Travion Blount, who received six life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole for participating in an armed robbery. Travion’s sentence to six life sentences (118 years) without the possibility of parole is a death sentence behind bars. His only chance of leaving prison is through geriatric release at age 60, an unlikely possibility. No one would argue that this wasn’t a serious crime. No one would argue that a 15-year-old that points a gun at teenagers at a party shouldn’t be punished. But what happens next is up to us.
Sentencing laws are written by people… most of whom have law degrees. Those laws can be encouraged or discouraged by the general public. Here is one opportunity among many to sound off. Should Travion—a 15-year-old boy who committed a serious crime die behind bars?
Slowly but surely, our society is realizing that these extreme sentences do not reduce crime; instead they create mass incarceration of people of color in our country, lead to serious overcrowding in prison and jail, and waste precious lives and millions in resources on keeping people locked up. We have a long way to go in terms of creating a sea change around this issue, and making sure that people everywhere in this country are free from extremely harsh sentences. While some states have changed their harsh sentencing laws, people in this country suffer from “geographical justice,” meaning that where you do the crime defines your time.
Virginia is one of 11 states that still imposes life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles with non-homicide convictions. So two 15-year-olds with the same profile, the same crime, and the same circumstances will be treated and sentenced completely differently by the courts, depending on whether they live in California or Virginia. Is that justice?
At Root & Rebound, we believe in second chances, and we believe that every person should be treated as an individual, with the courts, the board of parole hearings, and other criminal justice bodies looking at their specific life circumstances and character. We take issue with living in a society where anyone is left to die behind bars, no matter their age or conviction. We believe that every life should be valued, and that the solution is not to lock the door, turn our backs, and throw away the key. The solution is to look in the mirror to examine what we, as a society, are doing wrong, and how we are failing our young people, our communities of color, and our citizens with disabilities and mental illness. To realize that we, as a Nation, have a public health epidemic—of violence. To take responsibility for some piece of every crime.
In talking and working with formerly incarcerated people, we spend a significant amount of time with individuals who have committed all types of crimes. Some that sound and are much more serious than Travion’s. We also see these same individuals, when given the chance, become active members in their communities, whether those communities are in jail or prison, or in their neighborhoods when they return to outside life.
Many of our formerly incarcerated colleagues (just a small number of whom we have featured on the blog here and here) take on more unpaid work in a year than most of us could ever imagine. They volunteer their time to support others reentering; they speak to community groups, universities, policymakers, and on various panels hoping to spread messages of hope and change the image of “who is a criminal.” They understand the problem of draconian sentencing laws and mass incarceration in our country from the inside out. They see other options for dealing with social problems. They collaborate with service providers like ours to get as much legal and social support to people leaving prison as possible. They help others give back just as they have. Not only are these individuals totally safe to live free and outside of prison, they are real assets to society, using their own experiences to make our world a much better and more compassionate place in which to live. And part of the reason why we started this blog was to highlight these incredible community members, and let their work and their lives tell the stories of redemption and second chances, and to change the minds and open the hearts of people who come across our blog.
The ACLU has published a report on people with life sentences without the possibility of parole—all who committed nonviolent offenses. The report shares a range of stories—a woman who carried drugs for her abusive boyfriend, a man who stole tools from a tool shed. All of these people were sentenced to die behind bars. To read more about Travion Blount and the devastating outcome in his case, visit the ACLU’s report here.
—The R & R Team