110 people once sentenced to life in prison gathered to share their story
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
The Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional. Since then, more than 900 people who thought they would die in prison have been released through the courts, clemency or parole. Some of them gathered in Washington this month. Here's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: They came to the nation's capital for what they called a freedom party. One hundred ten people once sentenced to life without the possibility of parole met to share their stories. Christi Cheramie entered prison in Louisiana two weeks after her 16th birthday. It took her 25 years to win release. She remembers the day she finally ran into the arms of her mother in February 2019.
CHRISTI CHERAMIE: As funny as this may sound, we were never able to run in the institution. And so I had my family prepared for when I walked outside of the gate that we would run through the parking lot and make a left because I just had to get that burst of energy out, you know, with that excitement.
JOHNSON: Since then, Cheramie's worked to help other incarcerated people transition home. That's what Don Jones does, too. Jones spent 26 years in prison in Pennsylvania before his release three years ago. At this conference in Washington, he's happy to be around other people who understand what he's feeling.
DON JONES: It's rare to get an opportunity to be in the room with people who have these similar experiences. You know, and talking to a lot of guys and the women, it's like, I'm not strange.
JOHNSON: Behind bars, Jones helped start a program called Real Street Talk that won national recognition from the Trump administration.
JONES: I'm one of the only prisoners, probably, in the country who got a citation from Jeff Sessions, Justice Department, which was - to me was like, seriously?
JOHNSON: But Jones says he's not unusual.
JONES: It's men and women - it's not the institutions, man - that raised me. You know, they showed me how to do things properly. You know, and I want people to know that it's safe to let lifers out. It's safe to let people out of prison.
JOHNSON: Jones says the recidivism rate for juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison and ultimately released is very low. But he says he knows the political rhetoric on crime is heating up as shootings and murders plague many cities. The former lifers say that debate misses a key point - that people convicted of crimes as children in adolescence, when their brains are still developing, have the capacity to change. Jody Kent Lavy co-directs the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which organized the conference. She says there's been significant change in the past decade.
JODY KENT LAVY: In 2012, there were five states that banned life without parole for children. Today, it's 25 states and another six that have nobody serving the sentence. So it's been a very rapid rate of change.
JOHNSON: Still, she says, there's a lot of work for advocates to do. A campaign is underway in Michigan to abolish life without parole for juveniles in all cases. Legislation with that goal in mind is pending in several other states, too. Her group is also pressing Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that would guarantee judicial review for juveniles who have served 20 years behind bars. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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