Should Juveniles Be Sent To Jail For Life?

The Supreme Court is considering a case that could outlaw the practice of sentencing teenagers to life without parole. Former Republican United States Senator Alan Simpson and author R. Dwayne Betts have filed an amicus brief in the case. Simpson and Betts, both former juvenile offenders, tell host Michel Martin why they believe all teenagers should have a second chance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Michael Jackson never made it to his comeback tour, but four months after his untimely death, fans can see him on screen. The new documentary "This Is It" captures the King of Pop's final rehearsals. We'll hear a review. That's just ahead.

But first, the story of two men. One was convicted of carjacking at the age of 16; the other was a hellraiser who helped burn down a federal building, shot a cow for fun and hit a police officer after a racially charged bar fight.

Some might say those two are just no good: throw them in jail and throw away the key. And they might be right, except for the throw-away-the-key part because the first man became an accomplished writer and poet and the other a distinguished United States senator.

Now those two men have teamed up, along with other accomplished former juvenile offenders, to urge the Supreme Court to consider outlawing life sentences without parole for people who committed non-capital offenses as juveniles. They filed an amicus brief in the case of Graham v. Florida, which the court is expected to hear next month.

Currently, nine people are serving life-without-parole terms for offenses committed when they were 13 or 14 years old.

The two men I was just talking about are with us now. They are R. Dwayne Betts, he's author of "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison." Also with us, Senator Alan K. Simpson. He's a former United States senator from Wyoming, a Republican.

Welcome to you both, or I should say welcome back to you, Senator Simpson.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Wyoming): Well, hello to you, and it's a pleasure to participate here. It's an interesting thing. I want to you know that I am not in this with any compensation whatsoever. I'm not paid by anybody. What you're hearing is the miscreant restored.

Mr. R. DWAYNE BETTS (Author, "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison"): And I echo those sentiments. It's a pleasure for me to be here, as well.

MARTIN: Senator, did a lot of your colleagues in the Senate know your rather colorful past, we should say?

Mr. SIMPSON: I think the thing that's important is that people do know it, and I knew when I ran for public life that the first thing that the media would do would be prowled through everything I'd ever done. So I thought, well, I don't want them to find it. I just said look, I was on federal probation for two years for shooting mailboxes.

We did commit an arson, which was never found, we destroyed property. And then in Laramie, when I was a freshman and weighed 260 pounds and had hair and thought beer was food, I got in a fight with a guy who got all cut up, not by me, and then the cop arrested me, and I slugged the cop and ended up in the clink for a night and decided, you know, I don't need this much more.

MARTIN: Dwayne, what about you? How did you get started, for want of a better word, hellraising?

Mr. BETTS: I tell people that it was real slow. I was smoking weed every once in a while. Then I was smoking weed all the time, but I was always a good student, so when I say it was slow, it's almost as if one day I just woke up, and I was incarcerated.

I had a gun in my hand one night. I carjacked a man, and then the next day, we got locked up. We pled guilty. But the truth is if you would have talked to me the week before, you would have found out that I was applying or getting ready to apply for scholarships to college, and really, I was on my way out of my community, so to speak.

MARTIN: The judge at your sentencing told you, as you recall, that he was under no illusions that sending you to prison will help you. Why do you think he said that?

Mr. BETTS: Because I think the judge understood that as a juvenile, I was even amenable to rehabilitation at that time, but I think the judge also recognized that prison was not the place where I will be rehabilitated, but his comments helped me more than prison helped me because his comments made me feel like I needed to prove that I could make something out of myself, even though I was at the bottom of the bottom at the time when he spoke to me.

MARTIN: Did you feel that way at the time? I mean, you were in prison for nine years.

Mr. BETTS: No, I felt that way…

MARTIN: You had a lot of time to think about what he had to say.

Mr. BETTS: No, I felt that way at the time. I mean, as soon as he said it, it struck my head as something that didn't fit in everything else that was going on in the courtroom, and after he said it, my aunt screamed, and she screamed as if somebody was dying. So the two things echo in my head together where his pronouncements was almost a death sentence, and my family took it as such.

And I was there to say hold up. I could change this. I could turn it around. And even though I didn't consciously know how, I was already consciously thinking about making my life something different.

I mean I got my high school diploma while I was in jail before I was sentenced, so I was already in the path for making my life different before I was sentenced. So I knew that I was, you know, to the best of my ability to continue along that path.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with author R. Dwayne Betts and former United States Senator Alan Simpson. And we're talking about teenagers being sentenced to life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The Supreme Court is taking up a case that would outlaw that practice. Both Senator Simpson and author Betts are former juvenile offenders.

Senator, what about you? You started our conversation by saying that nobody's, you know, paid you to be participatory in this issue of asking the court to outlaw - as unconstitutional, as cruel and unusual punishment - life without parole sentences for juveniles who've non-capital offenses as juveniles.

What made you want to join this brief? Why did you decide to get involved?

Representative SIMPSON: Well, they had read about, you know, that these things I say have been public for a long time, ever since I ran, and they had picked that up and they called and they said there's this Supreme Court case. I said well look, I want you to know I'm not soft on criminals, especially people who rape and pillage and murder and all that.

And they said no, these are not homicides, they're not murder, and where they've said to the guy at 13, 14, or 15, you're in for life with no possibility of parole. I, you know, I just thought, well, why don't they call the guy in in 20 or 30 years and say what are you doing here in the clink? Well, I'm the assistant librarian. Are you? All right, I read a lot. I didn't know how to read when I got here, but I do now. Or making beautiful license plates - mine are the best of all. But whatever they're doing, they've improved themselves, and I think those people need a second chance.

MARTIN: There are those who say that even if you are 13 or 14, if you cross a certain line, you've crossed it, that your behavior requires that you be separated from society. What do you say to people who have that point of view, and you know that they are certainly people who do?

Representative SIMPSON: I just tell them look, give a guy a chance. Just say -bring them in and if they say, I don't do anything. I'm just sitting here wondering how to get out so I can keep doing this again, throw them back in the clink. But if they have made a conscious decision to say, I'm changed. I really am. You got to give me a try and here's why, and then put up the proof, and then put them out on probation.

MARTIN: Dwayne, what do you have to say about this?

Mr. BETTS: I mean I think if you consider the fact that a 13-year-old who serves 25 years in prison would still be released as a relatively young man, and a lot of things happen over the course of 25 years, so it's not even as if we expect a person that commits that crime to be the same person 25 years later. Me at 16, I'm a totally different man now at 28.

So, the one thing I say is, if you think that the things I'm doing are positive, and your recognize that I did this without really any institutional support, you know with the proper institutional support a 13-year-old that commits - and we're talking about non-homicide offenses - a juvenile that commits one of those offenses is very redeemable.

Juveniles are juveniles for a reason. In every area of life, in every area of law, if you're under 18, you can't buy cigarettes. Why? Because you're a juvenile. You have to be a certain age to get a driver's license. You have to be certain age to drink. I mean everywhere else we recognize that it's a difference between juveniles and adults. And we recognize that that difference is even greater the younger the child is.

MARTIN: Senator, can I ask you this question? Dwayne makes the point that, you know, we don't allow juveniles to vote, no matter how brilliant they are. We don't allow them access to alcohol, no matter how mature they may be - or to buy cigarettes, to do any number of other things. So why is it though, that we are willing to allow adult sentences to be imposed on juveniles when we wouldn't even allow them to sit on the jury that would judge them. Why do you think that is?

Representative SIMPSON: I don't know, but I think that's one of the big swaying arguments in this case. It's a very powerful argument in my mind, and he brings it up. I can't tell you why I did anything like this. I had loving parents and a wonderful brother, Pete, and a good life in Cody, Wyoming. But I was a monster.

I had ugly thoughts about a lot of things. But the softening agents of life come into a person. And if you're in the clink and you're trying to do better, and you suddenly try to immerse yourself in history and beauty and literature, and those things brush away the abrasive elements of life.

MARTIN: Senator, you've been heard on this, in this brief, and I don't know that people actually ever address the court directly other than through these briefs, but if you did have a chance to speak to the justices, what would you say?

Representative SIMPSON: I'd just say if you're 50 years old and you get thrown in the clink for carjacking or hijacking or whatever, you know, when you're 70, you're probably not going to be the, you know, Exhibit A of good conduct. But if you're 13, 14, and 15, and 16, and you're dumb, stupid, abusive, arrogant, boneheaded, those things don't last in my mind.

And I'll tell you, people who will tell me that nobody changes at 16, I always say how about you pal? Let's hear a little bit about your youth. Well, then they'll say well, of course, I blew up the mailboxes with the M-80 firecrackers and, you know, did this and then they tell their cutesy little phrases as if they've never participated in any of that. They're phonies. That's a phony thing. So give a guy a second chance. That's all it is.

MARTIN: Dwayne, what about you? Any final thought, if you could address the justices yourself, other than through your brief, which you've already done? What would you tell them?

Mr. BETTS: Yeah. If I could address the justices, I guess I would echo what the judge told me. The judge told me I'm under no illusion that sending you to prison will help. And judges know this. I would just say that we all know this to be true. I knew it to be true at 16, that I will be different at 21, at 25, at 30, and I've proven that I've become a different person.

And I just think that in this situation we don't even have to rely on science. We don't even have to rely on elaborate arguments. We can just rely on the fact of personal experience. We know that time changes people.

MARTIN: R. Dwayne Betts is a poet and the author of "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison." He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Alan K. Simpson is a former United States Senator from Wyoming. He was kind enough to join us from Cody, Wyoming.

Thank you so much for joining us gentleman.

Mr. BETTS: Very thank you.

Representative SIMPSON: A pleasure.

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