Former Juvenile Offender Applauds High Court

Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders may not be given mandatory life sentences without the chance of parole, unless they committed murder. Guest host Alison Keyes speaks with a former juvenile offender, and now an award-winning author, R. Dwayne Betts, for his thoughts on the ruling.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

A juvenile offender cannot be given a life sentence without parole unless it's a murder conviction. That's what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a far-reaching case.

R. Dwayne Betts is an ex-juvenile offender. He was convicted of carjacking at age 16. He served nine years of his sentence in some of the worst prisons. But he's out now, and he's written a book called "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison." Welcome, Dwayne, to the program.

Mr. R. DWAYNE BETTS (Author, "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison"): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

KEYES: So, when you heard about the ruling, what did you think?

Mr. BETTS: I was excited. I think that it was the Supreme Court taking the opportunity to say that juveniles are different. If you're under 18, you are different from an adult. And at least in non-homicide cases, you can't be sentenced to life without parole.

KEYES: You were on our program last year with Senator Alan Simpson, talking about a group of former juvenile offenders who were urging the court to outlaw life sentences for juveniles. Now that it has been handed down, what else do you think they should take into consideration in these kinds of cases?

Mr. BETTS: Well, I think if you look at the previous case where they outlawed the death penalty for juvenile offenders and then you look at this case, it's the Supreme Court saying that just like society says, if you're under 18, you are inherently different. You aren't mature, and you aren't ready to make certain decisions, and you are impulsive. So I think what's going on now - and what I would hope would happen - is that we begin to look at the other ways in which we prosecute juveniles as adults.

KEYES: OK, here's the thing. If you've got a 12-year-old who's going around blowing people away with an AK-47, or if you've got a 12-year-old that's killing several people in a row - I mean, aren't there some people that just ought to be in prison? I mean, and Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent to this, and he talked about how in medieval times, they used to impose the death penalty on people as young as 7. Aren't there some people that just should be kept away?

Mr. BETTS: Well, first of all, this situation is for non-homicide offenses. And so your question brings about the problem that we usually have when we're talking about juvenile offenders. We want to look at the most heinous crimes and use that to set the legislation, and to set the standard of judgment for all of the juveniles.

KEYES: OK. Say - not homicide. Say, if you're beating up senior citizens serially, you know.

Mr. BETTS: OK.

KEYES: Or robbing people on the street. Still, aren't there people that ought to just be kept off the streets?

Mr. BETTS: First of all, you say, aren't there people who ought to be kept off the street? What the Supreme Court found is that you cannot, like I say, incorrigibility is something that is not consistent with being a child. So, when you say, should be kept off the street permanently, you're saying that this individual is incorrigible, that they can't be rehabilitated.

But evidence shows that juveniles are more amenable to rehabilitation than adults. And so what you find in this case is the Supreme Court is saying that they just it's a review that needs to happen. So for the cases that you suggest, it's a review that needs to occur. It's not that they shouldn't be locked up. It's not that, you know, you go and beat up an old woman - you should be given probation.

It's that if you are incarcerated, the term of your incarceration should include a standard of review that will allow you as a juvenile to hope that you could redeem yourself and show whoever it is that's looking at this case that you are a different person from the 12-year-old who might have committed the heinous crime that we're talking about.

KEYES: I have seen this question all over the Internet, and I'm going to ask you. If an ex-juvenile offender who 20 years later has proven, OK, I'm ready to be out now, gets out and then commits this terrible crime, what do you say?

Mr. BETTS: I say that I was a juvenile offender. When I was 16 years old, the judge and the prosecutor described me as a menace to society - even as they told me that prison would not help me. I've been released for five years. I graduated from the University of Maryland. I graduated from Prince George's Community College. I graduate from graduate school in about two months. I'm a father. I'm a husband. I'm a community member.

And I say that one person's mistake does not discount what I proved to be possible. And so we shouldn't look at one individual and act as if that individual is the representative for the group.

KEYES: What kind of things should they look for in a juvenile offender who has not been convicted of murder to consider whether or not, after committing a violent crime, they may have been rehabilitated? I mean, if you can relate it to your case a little bit. What kind of things made you know, OK, I'm ready to be out of here and be better?

Mr. BETTS: I mean, the first thing is what services are available in whatever facility the person is locked up in. So the services that are available create a benchmark. Have they been a part of this program, that program? Have they successfully completed this program or that program? And then you look at what they've done on their own.

For me, there were no rehabilitative services in the state of Virginia. But if you had a conversation with me, you would've found out that I took a correspondence course in writing. You would've found out that I took a paralegal course, that I was a law clerk, that I was a GED tutor. And these are all things that I did on my own.

So although you're in prison, you still have a life to live while you're in prison. And there are things that happen within the confines of those walls that show, to some degree, the changes and the progress that a person has made.

KEYES: Really briefly, why did you commit your crime? And I know you just said you went through all of this without help, but what made you think: I have to change this for myself?

Mr. BETTS: Well, first of all, I think that I'm the person who one, I wasn't incorrigible but two, I just made a mistake. I was impulsive. I was 16, and I just didn't have the wherewithal to go through society in the way that I wanted to. And I know that sounds like an excuse, but it's just the reality. I just made a horrible decision. And you asked me why did I rehabilitate myself, or what did I do while I was in the system...

KEYES: No, what made you want to rehabilitate yourself and say, I'm not just going to hang out here and, you know.

Mr. BETTS: Well, the first thing is, I never thought that I was just a person who committed the crime. And oftentimes when you go in front of the court, that is what the court sees. They have to look at the crime because that's the situation at hand.

But I wasn't going to allow myself to be defined solely by that situation. And then I think the more contributing factor was that my mother was in the courtroom, and she couldn't speak, and she watched me be sentenced to nine years in prison. And I didn't want that to be her only memory of her only son.

KEYES: So what you're saying here is rehabilitation is possible, and that's why you think this is a good idea.

Mr. BETTS: Not only is rehabilitation possible, but it's one of the, you know, it's one of the things that we consider in our justice system. It's a reality for a lot of people.

KEYES: Really briefly - and I mean really briefly - should it be on a case by case basis?

Mr. BETTS: About life without parole?

KEYES: No, yes.

Mr. BETTS: No, I don't think life without parole should be on a case-by-case basis.

KEYES: OK. R. Dwayne Betts is the author of "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison," and is a former juvenile offender. He joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Mr. Betts, thanks so much.

Mr. BETTS: Thank you.

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