John Lash On Sentencing Fairness and Salvaging Young People

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John Last 1On August 22, James Glover, a Marietta, Ga. teenager, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the robbery and assault of Paul Smallwood, a 94-year-old World War II veteran. Glover and an 11-year-old accomplice robbed Mr. Smallwood of $27 and a cell phone last September. Smallwood had lived independently until the attack. Now, due to his injuries, he is in assisted living. According to his family he has never fully recovered his faculties. The judge, Stephan Schuster, stated that there is a “stark contrast” between the lives of the victim and his attacker. He also said that Glover’s actions are “indicative of somebody who is destroying this country.”

Glover could have received up to 40 years for his crimes. Prosecutors had asked for a 20-year sentence, alleging that Glover, 16, was a gang member. His defense attorney asked for a sentence that mixed time served with house arrest and probation. In addition to the 15-year sentence, Glover will have 5 years on probation.

What stood out for me in this story were the quotes by Sandra Womack, the victim’s niece, who speaking about Glover said, “I hate that anybody has to spend time in jail or prison or whatever, but the main thing is he comes out the other side a better person.” She also said, “He’s young. He’s only 16. He’s got his whole life ahead of him. I don’t want him to be 50 years old when he comes out of prison.” She added that her relatives agree with her.

It is interesting to me that she had the idea that Glover’s youth should mitigate his sentence. I imagine she understands the younger a person is the less competent they are to make decisions. The concept of juvenile justice in the United States is based upon the idea that children are fundamentally different from adults. They are seen as more amenable to rehabilitation and capable of change. For more than 100 years this idea shaped laws and policy for dealing with juveniles, but it has been undermined over the last 20 years or so by laws that lead to juveniles being tried in adult court and given adult sentences.

I was discussing this with a friend of mine who is an attorney, J. Allen Lawson. Allen has been a lawyer since 1995, and was the solicitor general of Jones County, Ga., for more than nine years while maintaining a private practice as well. It was unclear to me how much discretion the courts have in these cases. He told me that once when he was defending a juvenile accused of a serious crime he filed a motion to have the case sent back to juvenile court. The prosecutor had never seen such a motion. The judge denied the motion and the case moved on in adult court. This seems indicative of a growing acceptance that trying juveniles as adults is the norm.

According to the National Center for State Courts 87 percent of all state judges are elected. A Department of Justice survey stated that 95 percent of prosecutors are elected. This is the case in Georgia as well, and there is pressure on them to be “tough on crime.” The more serious a crime is, the more likely it is to draw public attention. Any prosecutor or judge who makes a decision that seems lenient will have to answer charges that he is “soft” in the next election.

Georgia law says that the child’s right to be treated as a juvenile is weighed against the community’s right to have him tried as an adult. The Georgia Code says that, “The child’s right to be treated as a juvenile must be balanced against the community’s interest in treating the child as an adult. In doing so the amenability of the child to rehabilitation vis-à-vis the egregiousness of the crime must be considered.” This sliding scale of justice results in more serious crimes being much more likely to go to adult court.

It is unclear to me how much time Glover will actually do. It may be that he is eligible for parole at some point. If he does the full sentence, he will be 30 years old when he is released.

I do not know what would be fair in this case. The crime was serious and drastically changed the life of Mr. Smallwood and his family. In the current law there is no middle ground that prosecutors and judges can take without opening themselves up for criticism. Allen told me that over the past 20 years, he has noticed a growing feeling among people that children are not salvageable. This does seem to be the trend reflected in public opinion and laws, and it appears to me that the more than 100-year-old ideas of juvenile justice are slowly being eroded.

I take comfort in Sandra Womack’s willingness to extend at least some mercy to this young man. If she, the niece of the victim, can find compassion due to Glover’s age, then there is hope that others can as well.

There is hope that regressive laws can be changed, and a new way found to address the needs of the child, the victim and the community.

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