Cyntoia Brown Granted Clemency

Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced he had granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who has been serving a life sentence since killing her abuser when she was 16. CFSY Youth Justice Advocate Eric Alexander released the following statement:

I am very proud of my home state of Tennessee today after our Governor’s decision to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown. A victim of sex trafficking, she was given life in prison for a crime she committed as a teen. Cyntoia’s much-deserved clemency should serve as a reminder and example of the need for systemic change to our justice system so that young people who come in conflict with the law are held accountable in age-appropriate ways with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

I say this as someone who, like Cyntoia, once faced a lifetime in the Tennessee Department of Corrections for a crime I committed as a teen. There are thousands of us across the country, but most don’t have celebrity advocates. We are the only country in the world that sentences our children to life without parole. The majority of the people serving these sentences experienced violence in their communities as children. I hope Cyntoia’s story will open the eyes of our country and serve as a rallying cry to end the extreme sentencing of youth once and for all.

Additional coverage can be found at The Tennesseean.

ICAN members, CFSY staff gather for self-care convening

The pilot ICAN self-care and community building convening brought more than a dozen members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) together from July 1-3, 2018 at the University of Scranton’s Conference and Retreat Center at Chapman lake to rest and renew, while also developing and deepening personal and professional relationships, and learning strategies to better care for one’s own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The structure and programming of the convening illustrated that self-care is an important component of ICAN members’ full and healthy reintegration into society and their ability to be effective in their work.

All ICAN members were incarcerated for serious crimes as children, and many spent several decades in prison, told that they deserved nothing more than to die there. Because of reforms during the last decade – including those led by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth – many of these individuals are now home. They are demonstrating that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done and that children have the capacity to grow and change. They are striving to make amends for the harm they have caused, seeking to change their communities and the world, and working to implement age-appropriate, trauma-informed accountability measures for other children – often without regard for their own needs.

At the self care convening, I had a wonderful time bonding with my fellow ICAN members. I also learned that self-forgiveness, apologizing, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable are so important to our work and growth, and that is also important to seek professional counsel. – Eddie Ellis

The ICAN self-care and community building convening included workshops and discussions about recognizing and healing from trauma, which many formerly incarcerated youth experienced before and during their imprisonment. Conversations, which were facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker, a priest who is also a leader in the restorative justice movement, and a CFSY staff member trained in pastoral and community care, also focused on creating personal wholeness, and engaged ICAN members about retaining their sense of personal accountability while overcoming the shame they bear for the harm they have caused.

Everything was awesome. The self-care sessions in particular helped me to identify some things I have been feeling and didn’t understand. And it also helped me reach a point of the beginning stages of healing. – Laura Berry

A major priority for the convening was to convey to ICAN members the importance of developing healthy self-care habits that will benefit themselves, those with whom they work, and their entire communities. Finally, the convening highlighted the importance of rest, relaxation and leisure. The convening was not envisioned to resolve all of the attendees’ self-care concerns; rather, it was a platform to highlight the issues, remind attendees that they deserve wholeness, and offer strategies and resources for continuing along this path. The CFSY believes that by embracing the full humanity of ICAN members and supporting their personal, professional, and leadership development, we provide them with the opportunity at success that they were not given as children.

Other reflections from participants:

Xavier McElrath-Bey:

On this trip, members of ICAN learned about the signs and impacts of trauma, as well various therapeutic and self-care approaches to treating.

Because of the safe space that we created, we were also able to hold each other tight and dive deep into the swampland of “shame,” sharing about the guilt and remorse we feel for the things we’ve done and the unhealed scars that resulted from harms done to us. In doing so, we discovered the holy grail of vulnerability, its healing and change making power, not just for ourselves but also for others who hear our stories. At times, there were tears and there was silence; and we came to recognize that healing itself is a journey; and that sources of hope, such as each other and our faiths, are what help us see to the other side. Ultimately, we embraced the strength in our shared humanity and our collective desire to make the world a better place for all children.    

No doubt, the openness we created, the shame we confronted, and the vulnerability that we embraced will have a lasting impact upon the movement for fair sentencing of kids. We are a stronger network of leaders now because of this retreat experience.

Abd’Allah Lateef:

As a Regional Connector and ICAN member, I had the special honor and privilege of participating in an amazing sabbatical hosted by the thoughtful and incredibly kind, Jody Kent Lavy.

The benevolence of CFSY/ICAN and its staffers was matched by the gracious hospitality exemplified by many members and volunteers within the Jesuit Community at and near Scranton University Retreat Center.

The self-care convening was in actuality a further demonstration of the strength, humility, empathy, selflessness, love, and genuine care and concern that we have for one another. In many ways, the bond that we share isn’t just a source of strength, it’s also a reservoir of healing which enables us to utilize our painful, trauma -filled lives in order to help others heal from trauma as well.

We should all be so lucky to have witnessed such an extraordinary event with such an inspiring group of change agents.

Marshan Allen:

I really had a great time at the first ICAN retreat. It was a pleasure to meet and spend quality time with fellow ICAN members as well as CFSY staff. I also really enjoyed the self-care sessions and took away some valuable tools to ensure that I am taking care of myself. I absolutely loved the downtime where we were able to fish, swim, play basketball, etc. I can’t wait until next time.

Special thanks to University of Scranton for donating its beautiful Chapman Lake retreat center for our gathering, Elizabeth Geeza, on their events staff, Matt Cuff of the Jesuit Conference, and Nick Napolitano, of the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces of the Jesuits, Father David Kelly, executive director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago, Lori James-Townes, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in areas of trauma, juvenile justice and criminal justice, as well as all those in the Scranton community, including the Ignatian Volunteer Corps of Northeastern Pennsylvania and St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen.

ICAN members, CFSY staff gather for self-care convening

The pilot ICAN self-care and community building convening brought more than a dozen members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) together from July 1-3, 2018 at the University of Scranton’s Conference and Retreat Center at Chapman lake to rest and renew, while also developing and deepening personal and professional relationships, and learning strategies to better care for one’s own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The structure and programming of the convening illustrated that self-care is an important component of ICAN members’ full and healthy reintegration into society and their ability to be effective in their work.

All ICAN members were incarcerated for serious crimes as children, and many spent several decades in prison, told that they deserved nothing more than to die there. Because of reforms during the last decade – including those led by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth – many of these individuals are now home. They are demonstrating that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done and that children have the capacity to grow and change. They are striving to make amends for the harm they have caused, seeking to change their communities and the world, and working to implement age-appropriate, trauma-informed accountability measures for other children – often without regard for their own needs.

At the self care convening, I had a wonderful time bonding with my fellow ICAN members. I also learned that self-forgiveness, apologizing, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable are so important to our work and growth, and that is also important to seek professional counsel. – Eddie Ellis

The ICAN self-care and community building convening included workshops and discussions about recognizing and healing from trauma, which many formerly incarcerated youth experienced before and during their imprisonment. Conversations, which were facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker, a priest who is also a leader in the restorative justice movement, and a CFSY staff member trained in pastoral and community care, also focused on creating personal wholeness, and engaged ICAN members about retaining their sense of personal accountability while overcoming the shame they bear for the harm they have caused.

Everything was awesome. The self-care sessions in particular helped me to identify some things I have been feeling and didn’t understand. And it also helped me reach a point of the beginning stages of healing. – Laura Berry

A major priority for the convening was to convey to ICAN members the importance of developing healthy self-care habits that will benefit themselves, those with whom they work, and their entire communities. Finally, the convening highlighted the importance of rest, relaxation and leisure. The convening was not envisioned to resolve all of the attendees’ self-care concerns; rather, it was a platform to highlight the issues, remind attendees that they deserve wholeness, and offer strategies and resources for continuing along this path. The CFSY believes that by embracing the full humanity of ICAN members and supporting their personal, professional, and leadership development, we provide them with the opportunity at success that they were not given as children.

Other reflections from participants:

Xavier McElrath-Bey:

On this trip, members of ICAN learned about the signs and impacts of trauma, as well various therapeutic and self-care approaches to treating.

Because of the safe space that we created, we were also able to hold each other tight and dive deep into the swampland of “shame,” sharing about the guilt and remorse we feel for the things we’ve done and the unhealed scars that resulted from harms done to us. In doing so, we discovered the holy grail of vulnerability, its healing and change making power, not just for ourselves but also for others who hear our stories. At times, there were tears and there was silence; and we came to recognize that healing itself is a journey; and that sources of hope, such as each other and our faiths, are what help us see to the other side. Ultimately, we embraced the strength in our shared humanity and our collective desire to make the world a better place for all children.    

No doubt, the openness we created, the shame we confronted, and the vulnerability that we embraced will have a lasting impact upon the movement for fair sentencing of kids. We are a stronger network of leaders now because of this retreat experience.

Abd’Allah Lateef:

As a Regional Connector and ICAN member, I had the special honor and privilege of participating in an amazing sabbatical hosted by the thoughtful and incredibly kind, Jody Kent Lavy.

The benevolence of CFSY/ICAN and its staffers was matched by the gracious hospitality exemplified by many members and volunteers within the Jesuit Community at and near Scranton University Retreat Center.

The self-care convening was in actuality a further demonstration of the strength, humility, empathy, selflessness, love, and genuine care and concern that we have for one another. In many ways, the bond that we share isn’t just a source of strength, it’s also a reservoir of healing which enables us to utilize our painful, trauma -filled lives in order to help others heal from trauma as well.

We should all be so lucky to have witnessed such an extraordinary event with such an inspiring group of change agents.

Marshan Allen:

I really had a great time at the first ICAN retreat. It was a pleasure to meet and spend quality time with fellow ICAN members as well as CFSY staff. I also really enjoyed the self-care sessions and took away some valuable tools to ensure that I am taking care of myself. I absolutely loved the downtime where we were able to fish, swim, play basketball, etc. I can’t wait until next time.

Special thanks to University of Scranton for donating its beautiful Chapman Lake retreat center for our gathering, Elizabeth Geeza, on their events staff, Matt Cuff of the Jesuit Conference, and Nick Napolitano, of the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces of the Jesuits, Father David Kelly, executive director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago, Lori James-Townes, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in areas of trauma, juvenile justice and criminal justice, as well as all those in the Scranton community, including the Ignatian Volunteer Corps of Northeastern Pennsylvania and St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen.

Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) introduces bill to end JLWOP in federal criminal justice system

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) applauds Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) for championing HR 6011, which would end life-without-parole and de facto life sentences for children in the federal criminal justice system and bring the country in line with most of the world in repudiating these draconian sentences for kids.

The use of extreme sentences on children, like life without the possibility of release or parole,  ignores what adolescent development research has documented and every parent knows: Children are not the same as adults. Drawing in part on research demonstrating that children possess less capacity than adults to control their impulses, think through the long-term consequences of their actions, or avoid pressure from peers and adults, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that children should not be subject to our country’s most extreme punishments.

“This legislation does not guarantee release. Instead, it provides the opportunity for a rehabilitated individual whose crime was committed in his or her youth and who has served a minimum of 20 years to have a sentence reviewed by a judge to determine whether a second chance is merited,” Westerman said. “I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for joining with me in this effort to provide the opportunity for a second chance for individuals who strayed from the law during adolescence.”

Congressman Westerman’s bill comes one year after his home state of Arkansas passed legislation banning life-without-parole from being used on children there. That legislation, now titled Act 539, impacted more than 100 people in the state and received broad bi-partisan support in the legislature. In addition to Arkansas, nineteen other states and the District of Columbia prohibit children from being sentenced to die in prison. Over the last five years, the number of states that ban these inhumane sentences has quadrupled, with conservative states like Arkansas, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia leading the way.

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has a similar provision to protect children from being condemned to die in prison in the Sentencing Reform and Correction Act (S. 1917). The CFSY worked closely with both Senator Grassley and Congressman Westerman on the legislation.

“We’re grateful that the inhumane practice of sentencing children to die in prison is being addressed at the federal level through the leadership of Congressman Westerman of Arkansas,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Arkansas is among a rapidly growing number of states reforming their youth sentencing laws to ensure that all children have the opportunity to demonstrate that they are more than their worst acts and deserve second chances. This bill is a reflection of our belief that there is no such thing as a throwaway child and that no child should be sentenced to die in prison.”

HR 6011 will ensure that children sentenced in the federal system have the opportunity to petition a judge to review their sentence after they have served 20-25 years in prison. Impacted individuals will be afforded counsel at each of their review hearings – a maximum of 3 – where the judge will consider, among other factors, their demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, and fitness to re-enter society. HR 6011 does not guarantee an individual’s release, but will ensure that children prosecuted and convicted of serious crimes in the federal system are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate whether they are deserving of a second chance.

Interview with Clint Smith: Racial Injustice and Youth Sentencing

Clint Smith is a prominent writer, teacher, and Harvard Ph.D. candidate. We spoke with him about the ongoing issue of racial injustice and its effects on our criminal justice system and youth sentencing in this country.

Here we are in 2018, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King. Where are we in this moment in terms of race relations in our country? The legacy of racism? Have we made “progress,” or is that even a term that makes sense to discuss in this context?

We need to make sure that we’re having a nuanced conversation around progress. We’re in a moment in which some scholars and writers are telling us that things are actually better than they’ve ever been, and that even though we are inundated with bad news, it’s important to take a broader historical look at the arc of progress that has been made across time. I think books and ideas like these bring up some really important points, and I also think that criticism of these ideas stems from the fact that in certain spaces we’ve made huge progress, and in other spaces we haven’t. It’s important to disaggregate data to see who progress is happening for and who it isn’t.

The racial wealth gap is growing, not shrinking. Many schools are more re-segregated than they were since before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and to give a longer historical arc to the analysis, we are too quick to assume that the most egregious examples of racial violence happened a long time ago, when they weren’t that long ago at all. The first slaves came here in 1619, the Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863, and then in 1964 and 1965 there’s the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

So, it’s only been about 50 years since black people in this country have had even a semblance of legal and legislative freedom. For the 350 years prior to that it was fundamentally legal to discriminate against, dehumanize, delegitimize, and disenfranchise black people. If you kick someone for 350 years, and then stop kicking them for a seventh of that amount of time, it’d be disingenuous to look at that person and say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have the same academic outcomes as me? The same economic outcomes as me? Why is there so much violence in your community?”

But again, we have this deeply ahistorical conception of the narrative of our country’s history with racism, and that allows us to misdiagnose and misunderstand the contemporary racial landscape. Obviously, the criminal justice system is a huge part of that.

Yes, let’s talk more about how this relates to the criminal justice system in the age of mass incarceration. And how it relates to living in an era during which an unprecedented number of youth, particularly brown and black youth, are serving extreme sentences.

The history of racism and white supremacy in this country and its relationship to our criminal justice system is deeply profound, and it impacts every facet of American political and social life. One can’t begin to understand the way that Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, for example, without understanding the ways in which the Ferguson police department has essentially criminalized poverty as a proxy from criminalizing blackness, as is documented in the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report.

The Department of Justice Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department is really important and illuminating, and it made clear something that has been anecdotally understood by communities of color for a long time. This country made a very specific choice about 40 years ago about how we’re going to engage with the problems of crime and poverty, and the lack of services, mobility, and opportunity for black and brown and poor people. And that’s where we go from 300,000 people in our criminal justice system in 1970 to 2.2 million in 2010.

This is obviously reflected in mandatory minimums, in the massive amount of control that prosecutors have been given, and in the fact that upwards of 90-95 percent of all court cases end in plea deals meaning innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just so they can get out of jail. And so the relationship between all of these social and political phenomena are deeply interwoven and deeply interrelated, and can’t be understood without one another.

In terms of juvenile justice, I think at this point we have a pretty extensive body of social science that shows the way that black children are adultified. The adultification that black girls experience, that black boys experience. The way in which Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy whom they referred to as if he we were someone much older than he was. Young black girls experience school discipline at far greater rates than their white counterparts. We have the history, the social science, and the data to demonstrate the ways in which all of these different things intersect.

To your point, seventy percent of people serving juvenile life without parole are people of color. You’ve worked with many of these people. What impact does this sentence have on them, and on their communities?

The first thing that you realize when you start working with this population is that but for the arbitrary nature of certain circumstances, I could very easily have been on the other side of the prison bars. We operate under this strange delusion in American life that we inherently deserve the opportunities we’ve had. We don’t account for the ways in which so many other things — a million things that are beyond our control — had to happen for us to be in the positions we’re in. And if you think that you inherently deserve the positive things you have gotten, then implicitly, you’re suggesting that the people who experience much more negative outcomes inherently deserve those.

That extends especially to our prisons, where the idea of prison is predicated on a certain social isolation and removal. On the one hand, American society is beginning to recognize the ways in which the death penalty is an egregious and horrific crime. And on the other end, we have the mythology of the “nonviolent drug offender,” but even if you let out every nonviolent drug offender, you would still have around 1.7  or 1.6 million people in the system, still accounting for one-fifth of the world’s total.

If we want to have a real conversation about ending mass incarceration, we have to ask a much more difficult set of questions about instances where people have committed physical harm against someone else, and those are questions that aren’t politically palatable, but I think they’re important.

Does it make sense to put a child in a cage for the rest of their life for something that they did when they were 15, 16, 17 years old? Even though all the social science shows that your likelihood of committing crimes decreases precipitously after you’re 30-35 years old? That your brain isn’t fully developed until you’re 25? That by 2050, our prisons will be 30 percent filled with people who are 55 and older?

And yet we’re unwilling to have that conversation, often because it demands a sort of empathy and nuance that has often been lacking in the discourse around mass incarceration because violent crime is not seen as something that is deserving of context and a sort of orientation towards understanding in the same way that nonviolent crime is, even the notion of violent vs. nonviolent is a false dichotomy. A lot of things that are called violent crimes don’t actually involve physical harm against anyone, and a lot that are called nonviolent are a little more complicated than that.

All that’s to say, in my conversations with folks, I try to get us to think of the context in which someone lives  that may lead someone to do something which would put themselves in a position to have them sentenced to life in prison, as a child, and again thinking about which children are we thinking of as children and which are we thinking of as a population which are sort of disposable.

You use the word empathy, and I know you’ve referenced a “double standard of empathy” or “selective empathy” in your work — in other words, the idea that people don’t feel empathy evenly, or the same way, for certain populations. Does this double standard exist / play a role when it comes to harsh sentencing practices?

Yeah, I think there’s 100 percent a double standard. The issue is that is a recognition of that double standard enough to change it, and the answer on that isn’t necessarily clear either.  There was a big Stanford study done a few years ago. It showed that while you might think that a group of white people who were told that black people were disproportionately handed draconian sentences, that they would say, “That’s terrible, let’s make it so that doesn’t continue to happen.”

But actually makes them double down on the existence of the sentences, because it perpetuates in their minds the idea that black people are deserving of them, or are an inherently dangerous group of people. I think sometimes people think a recognition of one’s bias will prevent the bias from happening, but sometimes it only reinforces it.

How do these dynamics, and this reality that brown and black children are more likely to be funneled into the criminal justice system and get more extreme sentences once there, impact their childhoods?

What does it mean to grow up in a world that is constantly taught to fear you? What does it tell a young child about who they are when the messages they keep getting about themselves are that they’re someone to be feared, someone to be caged, someone to be surveilled, someone who requires an occupying police force who is continually harassing and interrogating you and people you love? That creates a real and ongoing trauma for any young person.

I remember when I was teaching high school, some of my kids thought that their community was the way it was because they had internalized a lot of the racism that they’d been inundated with about themselves. Like, oh, well, we don’t work very hard, or we’re violent, or we did this to ourselves. And they’re not accounting for the decades of public policy decisions that have been made to de-prioritize their communities but also take resources from and plunder and decimate the social service infrastructure and economic infrastructure in many of these places.

To bring it back, we can’t begin to understand why the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole, and why black and brown children are disproportionately impacted by this sentence without this history — it’s deeply tied to a centuries-long history of white supremacy and racism in this country, and the way that it has continuously evolved, continuously reinvented itself, continuously attempted to adjust and recalibrate to a new and contemporary moment, in which it becomes more subtle and more egregious and more difficult to explicitly detect.

Follow Clint on Twitter @ClintSmithIII.

OKLAHOMA LEGISLATURE PASSES INHUMANE & UNCONSTITUTIONAL YOUTH SENTENCING BILL, COULD BECOME NATIONAL OUTLIER

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 2, 2018

Media Contact: Karmah Elmusa | kelmusa@fairsentencingofyouth.org | 202-289-4677 ext. 113

OKLAHOMA LEGISLATURE PASSES INHUMANE & UNCONSTITUTIONAL YOUTH SENTENCING BILL, COULD BECOME NATIONAL OUTLIER

Law would be the worst among states that have passed legislation following U.S. Supreme Court mandate in Montgomery v. Louisiana

May 2, 2018, Washington, DC –– Today, in a misguided effort to comply with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on sentencing children to life without parole, the Oklahoma legislature passed SB 1221. If signed into law, this bill would make it easier for children in Oklahoma to receive draconian life-without-parole sentences, scaling back protections that were put in place by the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals – including protections that require a jury to find that a child is beyond rehabilitation before such a sentence could be imposed.

Oklahoma’s neighbors – including Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and Colorado – have eliminated life-without-parole sentences for children. In making SB 1221 law, Oklahoma would not only be out of step with the region, but would have the worst law of this kind in the country and would become a national outlier when it comes to how the state treats children who are convicted of serious crimes.

“This bill flies directly in the face of the momentum we’ve seen around the country to end the barbaric practice of sentencing children to die in prison – a practice only seen in the United States. Not only has the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in almost all cases, but the number of states to ban life without parole has quadrupled in just the last six years, with traditionally conservative states leading the way,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Science has shown us that children are different than adults. Their brains are not as developed, and just as they do not vote or serve in the military, they are not deserving of the same punishments. We ask Governor Fallin to veto this bill immediately, lest her state become a national aberration in its treatment of the most vulnerable among us — our children.”

Under SB 1221, children would lose the right to jury sentencing, while adults who commit the same crimes would still have that right. In other words, if made law, the bill would ensure that youth offenders in Oklahoma are treated worse than their adult counterparts. SB 1221 also raises serious constitutional concerns and will likely tie up Oklahoma Courts for years.

Finally, SB 1221 includes a 14-page amendment that was never vetted before any legislative committee in Oklahoma and was drafted wholly by the District Attorneys Council without input from judges, child advocates, or defense attorneys in the state. Oklahoma should be as thoughtful as its neighbors when crafting policies that will have a significant impact on children in the state, especially one that may take away their current constitutional rights.

For more information, or if you would like to speak with Jody Kent Lavy or advocacy director James Dold, please contact Karmah Elmusa at kelmusa@fairsentencingofyouth.org | 202-289-4677 ext. 113.

***

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a national coalition that leads, coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement fair and age-appropriate sentences for youth.

ICAN Profile: Kim Simmons

At age 17, Kimberly Simmons was an expectant mother who was charged with first degree felony murder and was later sentenced to serve her the rest of her life in prison. Today, at 47, Kimberly is a free woman who is a member of ICAN, and is discovering what it is like to live as an adult in free society and preparing to be the kind of mother she wasn’t allowed to be the first time.  

When Kim was a child, she experienced trauma and neglect in many forms. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mother was paralyzed in an incident of extreme domestic violence when Kim was just 9 years old. Kim was also sexually abused by relatives, and slowly but surely she became angry and disconnected, isolating herself both in school, at home, and from her peers. At 16, she dropped out, and learned too late that she could not earn her GED until she was 18. She found herself alone in a new city, Cleveland, met a man, and became pregnant.

After a dispute with the father of her child over someone else he was seeing, some of Kim’s friends retaliated by throwing a Molotov cocktail into the house of his other love interest. Tragically, an elderly woman in the house was killed. Although Kim was not the one to throw the device, she was charged with and convicted of first degree felony murder and arson and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Kim gave birth while incarcerated, and her mother took her child in to raise her.  

Like so many young people who enter the system, Kim says being locked up was incredibly difficult, particularly at first. “I was sexually harassed in prison, and I did a lot of things I’m not proud of. I was really trying to do the right things in a negative environment without proper guidance,” she says. “They say prison is supposed to rehabilitate you but they don’t give you the tools to grow. They don’t tell you how. They say you need to get rid of your anger but they never take you through the steps on how to deal with it.”

Over time, however, Kim transformed from a disenchanted teenager into a mature and remorseful adult, and was able to find herself, even within the confines of a prison. She earned her GED, her associate’s degree in applied arts and sciences, and her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. She excelled academically, grew spiritually, and dreamed of someday being free.

Today, Kimberly is one of two female juvenile lifers who have been released in Michigan in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana (10 more remain incarcerated). Simmons, a native of Detroit, came home on May 3, 2017, after serving 29 years. Now 47, she is living with her family and expecting her second child, a girl, due in the summer.

But being home is not without its challenges, like finding work and learning how to drive. Still, Kim is more than determined to succeed, particularly when it comes to having her new baby. “While I have a 29-year-old daughter, I have never been a full-time mom because I had my first child in prison,” she says. “It’s going to take a lot of prayer and patience. I’ll have to stay humble.”

But on most days, Kim’s new surroundings still feel wonderfully surreal to her. “I still have my days where I wake up and the first thing I do is look around, and think, ‘Ok, it’s really here. I’m really here,” she says. “It wasn’t a dream. I really am home.”

Legal Highlights: Lengthy and 'de facto life' sentences for children

The first few months of 2018 have seen a number of cases from state appellate courts on issues surrounding juvenile sentencing, many of them addressing lengthy or de facto life without parole sentences. Here are a few highlights from these recent opinions:

On March 9th, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a 25-life sentence for a teenager convicted of homicide, continuing a long line of cases recognizing that kids are fundamentally different from adults and that the justice system should take their youth into account. In State v. Zarate, the court reaffirmed its prior holding that the vast majority of children should never be parole ineligible. In this case, it found that the sentencing court “allowed the circumstances of the offense to overwhelm its analysis” and that the judge had an improper predisposition to sentence Zarate to a mandatory minimum.

In a concurring opinion, one of the justices argued that because scientists have found that “the character of a juvenile offender is still being formed until the offender ages into the mid-twenties,” minimum sentences without parole eligibility “may constitutionally extend only as necessary to ensure complete character formation.” If at that point an offender can demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation, keeping them in prison “for purposes of incapacitation beyond that period is a purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering.” The opinion went on to say that because predicting the future and rehabilitation prospects of a child is “not possible with any degree of accuracy,” the constitutional approach is to abolish all mandatory minimum sentences for children and instead “allow the parole board to make periodic judgments as to whether a child offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation based on an observable track record.”

In People v. Contreras, the Supreme Court of California overturned a 50-life sentence for a teenager who committed a non-homicide offense, finding the sentence unconstitutional under Graham v. Florida. The court reasoned that while the sentence does not completely foreclose the possibility of release before the end of the average person’s expected lifespan,Graham contemplated more than a short time outside of prison prior to death, but rather “a sufficient period to achieve reintegration as a productive and respected member of the citizenry.” As a prison term allowing for no possibility of release until well after age 60 would not allow for this reintegration, the court found that the sentence violated the 8th Amendment and sent the case back to the lower court for resentencing.

Finally, in New Mexico, the state’s highest court recently cited to the work of the CFSY in holding that Graham v. Florida’s requirement that youth convicted of non-homicide crimes be afforded a “meaningful opportunity for release” applies to lengthy term-of-years sentences for multiple offenses. Citing the remarks of James Dold, CFSY Advocacy Director, during a hearing on behalf of legislation which later banned JLWOP in Nevada, the court called on the New Mexico legislature to adopt legislation providing a parole eligibility timeline for children.

JLWOP in the 2018 NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen

You can’t go much of anywhere in March without finding yourself in a conversation about the NCAA Basketball Championship — better known as ‘March Madness’ — and it’s similarly difficult to spend much time in our office without quickly gaining a handle on JLWOP and other extreme sentences for you in states across the country. Let’s take a look at the states represented in this year’s Sweet Sixteen:

South Region

Kansas State vs Kentucky

Both Kansas and Kentucky are among the 20 states that have abolished JLWOP. However, Kansas has not addressed other lengthy sentences for kids, so-called de facto life sentences, such as a 100-year term that is functionally the same as “life” and yet is still legal. Kentucky abolished JLWOP in 2008 but still has a handful of prisoners serving life sentences for crimes committed as children.

Loyola-Chicago vs Nevada

Unlike the region’s other matchup, this game features a state that still imposes JLWOP sentences in Illinois. That said, dozens of men and women have been paroled and are coming home in the Prairie State. Nevada, on the other hand, passed legislation in 2015 that banned JLWOP and provided for parole after 15 or 20 years, depending on the crime. The state does, however, still have a few prisoners serving JLWOP.

West Region

Florida State vs Gonzaga

Both Florida and Washington still allow for JLWOP sentences, though in Florida it is only available as an option in limited circumstances. Both states, however, see progress in the courts. Notably, a Florida Supreme Court decision provided opportunity for relief to thousands of prisoners. In Washington, litigation is currently pending at the state Supreme Court that could ban JLWOP under the Washington state constitution.

Michigan vs Texas A&M

Michigan has sentenced more children to JLWOP than almost any state in the union, and while some are finding relief and coming home in the wake of Montgomery v. Louisiana, prosecutors in the Wolverine State seek a reimposition of JLWOP in 60% of resentencing hearings, flouting the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery that JLWOP be applied only in rare circumstances. Texas abolished JLWOP after Miller v. Alabama, but maintains a 40-year minimum sentence before parole, a much longer minimum than other states have implemented.

East Region

Villanova vs West Virginia

Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia in particular, historically has used JLWOP more than anywhere else in the country — at the time of Montgomery, more than 500 men and women were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children — but a recent state Supreme Court decision and a new District Attorney in Philadelphia have led to more than 100 people statewide coming home. West Virginia passed legislation in 2014 that serves as a model to the rest of the country and provides for parole after 15 years for all children who commit serious crimes. However, no one in West Virginia who was sentenced to life without parole has actually been paroled as a result of this bill.

Texas Tech vs Purdue

Texas abolished JLWOP after Miller v. Alabama, but maintains a 40-year minimum sentence before parole, a much longer minimum than other states have implemented. Indiana still utilizes JLWOP along with neighbors in Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.

Midwest Region

Kansas vs Clemson

Kansas has abolished JLWOP but not addressed other lengthy sentences for kids, so-called de facto life sentences, such as a 100-year term that is functionally the same as “life” and yet is still legal. South Carolina still uses the sentence, but is currently considering legislation that would ban JLWOP in the Palmetto State.

Syracuse vs North Carolina

Much like Kansas, New York has no one serving JLWOP, but utilizes de facto sentences that will keep a child in prison for decades before a chance at parole. North Carolina still imposes JLWOP on children, but most people resentenced as a result of Montgomery are receiving parole-eligible sentences.