I met Mary Graham last Saturday at a meeting of Mothers Standing in the Gap, a group of women in Jacksonville who come together to support one another through their sons’ incarceration. Like mothers everywhere, they do everything they can for their sons, with little concern for themselves.
In 2006, Ms. Graham’s son, Terrance, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his first offense, an armed burglary that he committed while he was 16 years old. At the time Terrence was sentenced, Florida was the only state that imposed life without parole on juveniles for commission of an armed burglary as a first offense. Then and now, the U.S. was the only country in the world that sentenced children to die in prison.
Like so many other aspects of our criminal justice system, this story can’t be told without understanding its racial dynamics. In the U.S., African-American youth are sentenced to life without parole as children at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of White youth convicted of the same crimes.
Terrance challenged the constitutionality of his sentence. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and he won his appeal – one of the most significant victories for juvenile justice in recent memory. The court held that sentencing juveniles with life without the possibility of parole categorically violates the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.
The Supreme Court recognized that juveniles are not miniature adults. Teenagers have more transitory personalities than adults and a greater ability for rehabilitation. In an amicus brief submitted to the court, a distinguished lawyer, a U.S. senator, an author, a Broadway actor and a corporate executive each described their own journey from teenage crime committed to successfully making a contribution to their community as an adult.
In light of young people’s differences and unique potential for growth and change, as Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority of the court in Graham’s case, there ought to be “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” While Terrence was not released, he had to be resentenced to a different prison term.
Terence’s legal victory is not enough to correct Florida’s propensity to impose unnecessarily excessive prison terms. This year, and the end of the legislative session last week, marks the third year since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the Florida Legislature has failed to pass legislation implementing the Graham case.
The legislature must pass a law that complies with the letter and spirit of the Graham case and create a fair system that allows for youth in prison to demonstrate their rehabilitation and eventually be reunited with their families.
Unfortunately, Ms. Graham and the twelve mothers and grandmothers gathered in the meeting at the Jacksonville library last Saturday are not alone. Florida charges and tries more young people under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system than any other state.
There are currently 167 prisoners under 18 in Florida state prisons, and 443 more in Florida county jails. There are also 1,614 people in state prisons who have been in custody since they were children. The oldest is 69 years old.
Not all children charged as adults in Florida have been accused of a violent crime – a U.S. Department of Justice study found that among juveniles charged as adults in Florida 31 percent were charged for property crimes, 11 percent for drug crimes, and only 44 percent for crimes against persons. Compare that with states such California and Arizona where, respectively, 65 percent and 60 percent of children charged as adults are charged with crimes against persons.
Perhaps it is not our young people, but our state’s justice system, that is worse than most. In Florida, 11 percent of state prisoners are sentenced to die in prison: 7,819 are serving life without parole and an additional 4,185 are serving a life sentence, which became life without parole when Florida ended parole. Many more are serving long sentences that go well beyond their life expectancy, which are de facto sentences to die in prison.
One transgression is never the sum total of someone’s worth or potential. Yet one mistake can forever haunt us, and damage the people who love us.
This year marks the seventh year that Terrance Graham has spent in prison. Ms. Graham and other mothers describe their sacrifice to cover the expense of remaining in contact with their sons by mail or by phone, and the prohibitive cost of traveling for brief prison visits.
A few told of the heartbreaking experience of finally making the trip to a prison, only to be prohibited from visiting because their son was being held in solitary confinement. All have struggled to keep their families intact.
Crime has many victims. It damages individuals, families and communities. But unnecessarily long terms of incarceration create more victims, and these mothers have committed no crime.