BIG NEWS: Virginia bans life without parole for children!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 24th, 2020
Media Contact: Karmah Elmusa | kelmusa@fairsentencingofyouth.org | 202-289-4677 ext. 113

VIRGINIA GOVERNOR SIGNS HB35 INTO LAW, GIVING PAROLE
ELIGIBILITY TO CHILDREN AFTER 20 YEARS IN PRISON
The Commonwealth joins 22 other states and DC in banning life without parole for
people under 18 and complying with Supreme Court rulings on youth sentencing

February 24th, 2020, Washington, DC –– Today, in a critical advancement for the
Commonwealth, Governor Ralph Northam signed HB35 into law, which passed handily through
both legislative chambers last week. HB35 grants parole eligibility after 20 years of incarceration
to all people in Virginia who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense. It therefore
automatically bans sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole, making Virginia
the 23rd state in the country (in addition to the District of Columbia) to abolish this barbaric
practice.

“Those of us who have loved ones serving life sentences they were given as children in Virginia
have been working on this for years,” says Jana White, of the Virginia Coalition for the Fair
Sentencing of Youth. “There have been major obstacles and setbacks along the way, but we
never gave up and this bill signing marks the beginning of a more just era for the children of this
state. Our family members are filled with newfound hope today, which is something they haven’t
experienced in a long time.”

The bill — which was sponsored by Delegate Joe Lindsey — will impact over 700 currently
incarcerated individuals who were sentenced as children in adult court in Virginia by offering
them review, marking a major shift in the way the Commonwealth has dealt with its sizable
population of youth sentenced to extreme terms. Until now, it has been an outlier in its blatant
noncompliance with multiple Supreme Court rulings that have made it unconstitutional to
sentence a child to life without parole in almost all cases.

“We’ve seen an incredible uptick in state legislatures banning life without parole for kids, and
until now, Virginia has been woefully out of step with that national trend toward youth sentencing
reform, even when compared to states like Arkansas and West Virginia” says Jody Kent Lavy,
executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Children must be held
accountable for their actions, and because they are fundamentally different from adults in their
ability to assess risk and consequences, and their unique capacity for change, they should be
held accountable in age-appropriate ways with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into
society.”

“This is the eighth year that I have addressed this issue in the legislature. While there are many
individuals who remain dangerous, there are many more who have made strong efforts to turn
their lives around while incarcerated and are worth the Parole Board taking a look at whether
they can be restored to society,” says Senator Dave Marsden, who sponsored an identical bill in
the Senate. “We are a nation of second chances and those who are incarcerated for long
periods of time when they are juveniles are especially deserving of that look. This law in Virginia
is consistent with the Graham , Miller , and Montgomery rulings at the U.S. Supreme Court and I
am grateful that my colleagues in the legislature have now supported this effort at providing
individuals with a measure of justice that has been recognized in so many other states.”

***

For more information, or if you would like to speak with Jody Kent Lavy or someone directly
impacted by the law, please contact Karmah Elmusa at kelmusa@fairsentencingofyouth.org |
202-289-4677 ext. 113.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a nonprofit that leads efforts to ban
life-without-parole and other extreme sentences for children, and supports those incarcerated as
children who are released after serving long sentences.

ICAN and Youth Justice Fund Self-Care Retreat

The ICAN  and Youth Justice Fund Self-Care Convening brought more than a dozen members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) together from August 8th-11th, 2019 at Camp Woodbury on Normal Lake in Dexter, Michigan. This opportunity would not have been possible without the partnership of the Youth Justice Fund who provided resources, contacts, and invaluable insight. 

This Convening brought the opportunity 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.

This Self-Care Convening included workshops and discussions about recognizing and healing from trauma, which many formerly incarcerated youth experienced before and during their imprisonment. A licensed clinical social worker, staff members, and a spiritual and pastoral guide facilitated conversations about self-forgiveness. Participants 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. Lastly, there were myriad opportunities for relaxing and taking the break that each ICAN member deserves and needs.

This opportunity helped each of us begin to seek out and access the professional counsel we need. I learned that self-forgiveness, apologizing, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable are integral to our work and growth. We want our ICAN members to learn how to forgive themselves because with self-forgiveness comes growth and healing. – Eddie Ellis, ICAN Coordinator

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 CFSY – many of these individuals are now home. They are demonstrating that they are all more than the worst thing they 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.

To sum it up, when we all come together, it’s like you have a family you know is there, it’s a family bond that can’t be broken. I’m thankful that I’m able to travel and go because I learned to forgive myself for things that happened to me, learned how to overcome the shame I feel as someone who was incarcerated for many years. – Machelle Pearson, ICAN Member

A major priority 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 Self-Care Convening highlighted the importance of rest, relaxation, and leisure. It was a platform to highlight the attendees’ self-care concerns, remind them that they deserve wholeness, and offer strategies and resources for continuing along this path. The CFSY hopes that supporting ICAN members’ personal, professional, and leadership development will provide clearer pathways to success in this new chapter of their lives. 

In the “reentry” world we too often focus on making sure individuals returning home from prison don’t re-offend. I’m grateful to CFSY and ICAN for creating a space for collective joy and healing that pushes all of us to reimagine what reentry can look like. The Self-Care Convening created a much-needed space for bonding and outdoor fun, while also offering different sessions dealing with conflict resolution, therapy, and self-forgiveness that pushed participants to dig deeper into their journey towards self-care and ultimately self-love. – Noam Keim, Social Worker

 

Other reflections from participants:

Abd’Allah Lateef:

Life is difficult beyond imagination for marginalized communities, but for formerly life-sentenced children, the trauma of long term incarceration is often exacerbated by the uncertain process of reintegration. 

Given the complexities of trying to live life after having been condemned to life, self-care is paramount. The significance of intentional detoxification from the traumatic experiences of prison and reintegration has never been more clear until after witnessing the impact of the CFSY’s ICAN Self-Care Convening. It was an amazing manifestation of love, laughter, hopefulness, healing, and redemption. Jody Kent Lavy offered inspirational remarks about how this retreat was an attempt at restoring the inherent dignity and value that was stripped from these formerly life-sentenced children long before we engaged in acts of violence and harm. I left the retreat convinced that this was a transformative moment that deserves replication within distressed communities across the nation.

Eric Alexander:

The Self-Care Convening was a liberating experience. Many found the long-awaited freedom that we’d hoped. We reflected upon the child that we left behind decades ago when we were forced to grow up in cages, among adults, in a world that was not only unnatural but frequently violent. There was a shared experience of having never mourned for that child. Some identified self-forgiveness as a roadblock, and during the retreat, we were able to reach within the depth of our being to forgive ourselves for the un-intended harm that we caused. We acknowledged past trauma and later permitted ourselves to mourn for the child within that has gone decades un-mourned.

Special thanks to our partners at the Youth Justice Fund who helped make this Self-Care Convening possible, Anlyn Addis and Deb LaBelle who located Camp Woodbury and connected ICAN to new members in Michigan, Rev. James Ross, pastor and former staff member, Belinda Dulin with the Dispute Resolution Center, Tom Hollyer, our host at Camp Woodbury, and Noam Keim, a social worker with the Center for Carceral Communities.

California mother gets busy during Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing

For Esi Mathis of California, the 2012 Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing was the first time she ever spoke publicly about her involvement in the effort to end the practice of sentencing youth to life in prison without parole.

“This is an issue that has been part of my life for a long time,” she said. “The future of this nation depends on how we care for or fail to care for our young.”

The Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing is an annual event that was designed to raise awareness about, and inspire action around juvenile justice policies that undermine our faith. During the week, congregations of all faith traditions unite to educate and advocate on behalf of children, families, and communities impacted by these unjust policies. The week was observed on March 5-11.

Esi, whose son was sentenced to life without parole as a youth, used the week as a time to engage people in her faith community at HRock Church in Pasadena, California. When she approached one of her pastors and told him about the work of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and the National Family Network to expand the effort nationwide, he asked her to lead a portion of the Wednesday night prayer service. More than 40 people were present as Esi told them about her son and about the practice of sentencing youth to life without parole (JLWOP).\

“I said, ‘this is going to be very difficult for me, but it is something I am very passionate about,’” said Esi. “I asked how many felt their brains were fully developed when they were young teens and, of course, no one raised their hand. I also told them that the United States is the only country that sentences children to life without parole.”

Then Esi and the executive pastors led all of those gathered through about 10 prayers that were compiled as part of a tool kit assembled to assist with observances during the week. They prayed for her son. They prayed that everyone convened by the CFSY to witness the oral arguments in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama would be able to get into the court. And they expressed their shock that JLWOP sentences exist.

Esi’s activities didn’t stop there. She used a 30-minute segment on a blog talk radio show to discuss the issue and talked about it with colleagues at her place of employment, a Christian nonprofit. She discussed it with flight attendants when flying to Washington, D.C. for the oral arguments, with the shuttle driver and with anyone who would listen. Along the way, people repeatedly told Esi they
didn’t know that children could be sentenced without parole. Several indicated they would like to get involved with working to end the practice. She is now exploring opportunities to speak at other churches regarding the issue.

Featured Story

In 1987, 16-year-old Antonio Espree, a close friend of his, and an innocent bystander were shot during a drug-related dispute in Ypsilanti, MI. Antonio was the only shooting victim who survived, and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for first degree murder. He had only been arrested once before, for running away from home.

Antonio’s troubles began years before the shooting – as a child, he witnessed his stepfather and mother abusing drugs and alcohol. They would often argue, and his stepfather would beat his mother in front of him. Antonio not only felt unsafe in his own home, but he felt unloved; in his neighborhood he found drug dealers and gang leaders who filled that void and had a knack for exploiting and enticing young teenage boys. Those traumatic experiences and negative influences, along with the risk-taking tendencies that come with adolescence, set Antonio on a toxic path. Before he was old enough to contemplate the meaning of life, he was involved in the taking of another, and could have effectively ended his own.

But in prison – and despite his life-without-parole sentence and the exhaustion of all his appeals – Antonio began to mature and make better choices. While in some of Michigan’s worst facilities, he avoided trouble, took college courses, and earned certification in several vocational trades, including culinary arts, business education technology, and dog training. He also created and coordinated programs designed to deter younger inmates from leading destructive lives, and received training from FEMA to be a first responder.

After serving 29 years, 10 months, and 19 days, Antonio walked out of prison as a free adult. He was resentenced and released because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but also thanks to the mother of the victim in his case, who advocated for his second chance. She recognized that Antonio was just child who had hardly been given a chance at the time of his offense.

Today, Antonio, a proud member of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, often travels and shares his story, and is a passionate advocate for youth sentencing reform. He’s also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Justice Studies at Arizona State University, and has been volunteering to support families in Puerto Rico who were impacted by Hurricane Maria.