Arrested in 1991 at age 17, my oldest son Ralph was the youngest person swept up in a Florida drug ring led by adults. His unfathomable fate was three life-without-parole sentences.
For almost 22 years, he endured numerous denied appeals, and his situation appeared hopeless. During that time, it was impossible for me to fully celebrate most holidays. Despite the pain, I held on to hope, and encouraged Ralph to do the same.
Finally, five years ago, that hope became more than just a glimmer. On May 17, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life-without-parole sentences imposed on youth convicted of nonhomicide crimes violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling gave long-awaited hope to the numerous people convicted as children and serving life-without-parole sentences in state and federal prisons. My son was one of them.
Thanks to the Graham decision, the prospect of his freedom was closer to reality than ever before — yet it would take another three agonizing years before my son would be released.
It’s challenging to fully describe what it means to have my son free. I can say that having him home and witnessing the positive, productive person he has had the opportunity to become is the best gift I could ask for as a mother.
Like most parents, I always longed for my sons to live happy, fulfilled lives. I am grateful that Ralph is gainfully employed, happily married and contributing to improving communities as a returned citizen. Rather than allowing youthful mistakes to define him, he instead focuses on becoming the best human being he can be.
But having my son with me is not enough. I find it difficult to fully celebrate knowing that approximately 2,500 individuals remain imprisoned serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were teenagers.
Just as I saw life without parole as an extremely harsh sentence for my son, I don’t support it for any youth, regardless of the crimes they commit. Certainly, young people should be held accountable for harm they cause or participate in, but their punishment should be age-appropriate.
It should also consider what recent brain science proves — and every parent already knows — that young people are still developing. Even youth who commit the most serious crimes should be given meaningful opportunities to be rehabilitated and demonstrate their remorse, as well as have their sentences reviewed. This belief is consistent with our values as a nation, and we must continue to revise our laws to reflect this.
Unfortunately, two resentencing hearings that I attended recently fell far short of providing meaningful opportunities for release. In these cases, the individuals, both of whom were sentenced as children to die in prison, were either not allowed to have evidence of their rehabilitation presented or the evidence was disregarded. As a mother, and a concerned citizen, both proceedings were painful to observe.
I am not convinced that the young man and the young woman should be deemed unworthy of returning to society and making positive contributions. And as a person who has lost loved ones to violence, I was disappointed to learn that the family of the victim in one case has gone for nearly 20 years without services or support to help them address their loss. Neither scenario serves our society well.
The growing number of productive citizens who were formerly incarcerated as youth gives hope for further policy reforms. I am personally acquainted with several of these men and women, some of whom committed murder and have since sought to give back to the very communities from which they took so much.
We are better for the contributions they make to improve our nation. These men and women, along with my own son, are evidence that children can and do change. Given the opportunity and support, they can change for the better.
On this fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Graham v. Florida decision, we can celebrate the hope inspired by it. May that same hope propel us to continue working toward the elimination of extreme sentences for all young people. A wrong turn should not result in the impossibility of returning to the right path.
Esi Mathis is a Soros Justice Fellow and serves as family justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.