Justice in America Episode 13: Juvenile Justice
Josie and Clint interview Abd’Allah Lateef, Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.
America has one of the harshest juvenile justice systems on the planet. It is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. On this episode, we focus on America’s juvenile justice system: what it looks like, who it’s housing, and how we got here. We also interview Abd’Allah Lateef, the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, a project of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He is also the co-founder of the Redemption Project and chairman of the organization Life After Life.
A recent paper on how race impacts which children are charged and sentenced as adults can be found here.
More information about how adolescent brain development influences culpability can be found here.
This paper looks at the places most likely to sentence children to life without parole.
An article on Taurus Buchanan, a child who threw one punch and ended up being sentenced to life without parole.
This article from The Atlantic on juvenile life sentences provides some good context.
This piece by Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles on Juvenile life sentences is worth your time.
The Central Park Five is an incredible documentary that you should absolutely watch if you haven’t.
Justice in America is available on iTunes, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.
Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Abd’Allah Lateef: Because of the engagement with youth who are directly impacted and are subjected to systemic abuse, whether it started in the home, whether it’s the community, whether it was institutions responses to homes that was caused by marginalized people, you begin to not only internalize your own suffering, but that of others.
Clint Smith: What’s going on everybody? My name is Clint Smith.
Josie Duffy Rice: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discussed a topic in the American criminal justice system and try to explain what it is and how it works.
Josie: Thank you so much everybody for joining us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, you can like our Facebook page, you can just find us at Justice in America, and subscribe and rate us on iTunes. We’d love to hear from you.
Clint: We opened the show with a clip from our guest, Abd’Allah Lateef, who is the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, Cofounder of the Redemption Project and Chairman of the organization Life After Life. Today we’re talking about something very important, and honestly a little disturbing, and that is the juvenile justice system. What it looks like, who its housing, and how we got here.
Josie: But first we are going to talk about our word of the day, which I guess today is a phrase.
Clint: Well, it’s not really a phrase honestly. It’s more like a, like an idea.
Josie: A concept.
Clint: Exactly. It’s a concept.
Josie: So today’s concept of the day is cost per inmate.
Clint: Which kind of could still be a phrase.
Josie: Yeah. It’s kind of a phrase-concept-hybrid. It’s a weird phrase. It’s an awkward phrase. But basically we want to talk about how useless it is to measure the costs of this system as a dollar amount per inmate. It’s just not the way to talk about costs when we’re talking about running a prison or jail or a courtroom.
Clint: Which is something that even a lot of folks on the right side of this fight tend to do, understandably. But you know, sometimes we hear politicians or administrators or like I said advocates complain about how expensive the system is and they’ll say things like, ‘we spend $30,000 dollars per inmate per year!’ And this is the frame a lot of reform advocates use, which makes sense, we get it, interest convergence, you want to meet people where they are. If somebody cares about economics, you want to share this sort of information with them. And it’s clearly resonating with people, especially people who are focused on government spending. And understandably when you hear numbers like this, many people find it incredibly.
Josie: But can I just point out real fast that spending $30,000 on a person’s housing, food, clothes – literally everything they use or do or require for an entire year – is actually not that outrageous? You know, it feels kind of low to me, but that’s a separate point.
Clint: So the implication here is that if we released one person, we’d automatically save that $30,000 a year. And so the logic follows that, ‘oh well imagine if we released a thousand people.’ Recently, one organization calculated a cost per person incarcerated saving that would allow savings of $20 billion dollars a year nationwide.
Josie: There’s just one small problem, which is that’s not how it works. So John Pfaff, he’s the brilliant Fordham Economist that we featured last season, has talked about this a lot and wrote something really great about it for The Appeal. And what he said was that, quote, “Measuring costs this way both significantly overstates what we fiscally save with each person we divert from prison while simultaneously understating the social costs that such a diversion avoids.”
Clint: And John’s point is that when a person leaves prison, many of the costs still remain in place. The heat bill isn’t lower. The cell they slept in doesn’t suddenly stop taking up real estate. And most notably, releasing fewer people really has no impact on staffing, which is where most of the costs of incarceration are.
Josie: Right. In fact, if you insist on a cost per person metric, we should go with the money we spend on correctional officers. Those are the salaries that are taking up a ton of resources. Even as the prison population has dropped and staffing has fallen proportionally, salaries and wages have continued to go up.
Clint: Ultimately, states save about $5,000, not $35,000, when someone is released. Of course, releasing larger numbers of people – dozens, or hundreds, or thousands – could have a real impact on how much the facility is spending. But there’s no guarantee even in those cases. John’s research has found that one time Pennsylvania closed two entire prisons and laid off just three guards, which goes into a larger point of the power of the Correctional Officers Union and how much influence they have over the cost of the system.
Josie: Yep, exactly. And so the cost savings argument that you will save $30,000 by releasing one inmate, they’re not actually true and that’s a strong enough reason to stop using this terminology on its own, but this framing is also a pretty sure fire way to get bad policy. Right? I mean after all, we can always provide less to people in prison, and as we know, plenty of elected officials and plenty of prison administrators are completely willing to just cut more costs, but obviously we don’t want to do that.
Clint: And as John pointed out, the cost to us and to the people incarcerated are largely social costs. Yes, the system is absurdly expensive given the countless prisons we build and the systems we’ve perpetuated and people we’ve incarcerated, but the cost to individuals, to families, to society, on an emotional and financial level, have been higher than anything that the taxpayer has suffered.
Josie: So one last thing on this point, using a cost per inmate metric can backfire really easily. There have been a few local candidates who promised to save money by reducing the prison population and they used this kind of cost per inmate figure to talk about how expensive the system was. Well, they did actually reduce the prison population, but because of math, the cost per inmate actually went up, the same amount of resources were being used, but there were fewer people to divide them between. So prioritizing cost savings above all and using this metric actually could lead to more incarceration. You might as well fit four people to a cell instead of two, cutting the cost per inmate even more. And we know it’ll definitely lead to less than humane conditions.
Clint: So in sum, we understand why some people use these economic metrics and these cost per inmate metrics as a way of demonstrating the scale of the economic problem with our prisons, but as we said, what we don’t want is for people to focus too singularly on this problem to the point where that is the only source of their consideration with regard to mass incarceration because what we don’t want to happen is for people to provide lower quality food, less resources, less educational and vocational opportunities, cheaper clothing and all of the other ways that someone can ostensibly save money with regard to prisons and incarceration, but that actually contribute to horrific conditions and lived experiences of the people while they are on the inside.
Josie: Right. The costs do matter, but what matters the most are the people in the system. So okay, on to juvenile justice.
Clint: So, like many of our topics, this is a big one. There’s so much to get to, and we won’t get to talk about all of it. But there are some key things that we want to share and outline. First, some history. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, children were basically treated like adults in the criminal justice system. Regular courts would try them, they’d be sent to the same old jails and prisons as the adults. Sometimes these kids weren’t even alleged to have commited a crime. But there were few places to house children who had been abandoned by their families or whose family couldn’t afford to feed them. So people ended up putting them in prison.
Josie: Then, in the early 1800s, there were a couple of men who were interested in penal reform and they opened up the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, which led to the 1825 construction of the New York House of Refuge. And this was basically the beginning of the juvenile justice system. And it was the first quote unquote “juvenile reformatory,” and it was geared towards kids who were deemed to be abandoned, delinquent or incorrigible. By 1840, there were 25 more facilities like this one around the country.
Clint: But like the adult jails, these facilities were poorly funded and they were overcrowded. Staff was abusive. Conditions were awful. So basically there began to be this conversation about a new time of institution that would be more focused on education. Out of that came the reform school model. Basically what we would call a youth correctional institution today.
Josie: The first juvenile court came about in 1899, and it was largely because of advocacy from a group of women in an organization known as the Chicago Women’s Club. This was a major moment and it was really when we identified that kids who commit crimes deserve a different process than adults who do the same. And behind this idea of making a juvenile court was this belief that children could change.
Clint: For decades, juvenile court was fairly informal, and the main point was rehabilitation. At least, for some children, rehabilitation was the goal. In the era of Jim Crow, and the post-Slavery decades, black children were accused, tried and punished with the same lack of humanity that faced black adults.
Josie: So in 1944, George Stinney, a black child, he was 14, was accused of murdering two white women. Police arrested George and they claimed that he had confessed. But there was no record of that confession, other than a couple of notes cops has scribbled down. Stinney was tried in a one-day trial by an all-white jury. And they convicted him in ten minutes flat. There’s no record of the trial and no transcript. He tried to appeal, but he was denied.
Clint: He was executed by the electric chair, at age 14, that same year. He was only 90 pounds, and they had trouble securing him to the chair because he was so small. In order to make sure that they could attach the electrodes to his body, they made him sit on a bible. The state’s adult sized mask wouldn’t stay on, slipping off after the first surge of 2400 volts.
Josie: It wasn’t until 2014 that they posthumously exonerated him. And his sister was still alive. She had been fighting for many years to have his case reopened and reexamined. He remains the youngest person to be executed in American history.
Clint: After Stinney’s death, in the 1950s and 1960s, children got increased due process rights that they didn’t have before. But this was also an era where we saw courts become much more harsh against juveniles. It’s not shocking, of course, that this happened around the same time that the Civil Rights Movement was growing rapidly. This is always how it is in America – as minorities stride towards equality, the criminal justice system became harsher.
Josie: And around the 1960s the juvenile justice system starts to kind of reflect the same terrors of the adult system, all of these kind of still persist today. So children with mental health problems and learning disabilities were disproportionately ending up in the juvenile justice system. Black and brown kids, obviously, particularly boys, were finding themselves facing harsher punishments. And while there were voices in the 1970s pushing for alternative programs and sort of rethinking what justice means, that all kind of stopped in the 1980s. And we all know what happened in the 1980s.
Clint: This was the beginning of the mass incarceration as we currently know it, when the number of people in prison started shooting up at a catastrophic rate. Juvenile courts were getting more punitive and states were passing tough on crime laws just for juveniles as well. The number of children sentenced to death and life without parole started to increase. Meanwhile, the rhetoric was cruel and often racist.
Josie: We give you this history and this context to remind you of something that we talk about a lot on this show, which is that there is just no way to divorce mass incarceration from racism. Our criminal justice system’s policies, practices, language, all of it is rooted in the American history of slavery, of Jim Crow, of racial subjugation. And our history of juvenile justice is just no different. So, now we’re kind of in the 80s and 90s. We’re starting to see way more juveniles in adult court and that’s thanks to the prosecutors and judges and legislators who are passing laws and enforcing policies. In other words, we’re seeing the system start to revert to what it looked like in the early 1800s before the House of Refuge and before the first juvenile court.
Clint: One of the most harrowing cases during this time was the Central Park 5 case in New York in 1989, when a white woman was raped and beaten within an inch of her life while jogging in the park. Five black and brown boys were arrested, charged, and sentenced, and ended up spending between 6 and 13 years in prison. They were, of course, innocent. The boys were between 14 and 16 at the time, but the media talked about them like they were adults, calling them brutal and thugs and psychopaths. In fact, Donald Trump himself took out ads in four city papers, full page ads, calling for the boys to be executed. Here he is talking about it.
Donald Trump: You better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally. You better believe it.
Clint: And here’s one of the boys who was wrongly convicted, Yusef Salaam, talking as an adult about what he remembers about Donald Trump’s ad.
Yusef Salaam: When I first saw this ad that Donald Trump made, I knew that this famous person calling for us to die was very serious.
Clint: Even in the last few years, Trump has tweeted that he thinks these kids were guilty despite the fact that they’ve been exonerated, proved completely innocent.
Josie: Now, today, the landscape looks slightly better in some ways, at least. And a lot of that is thanks to Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. The Supreme Court has fairly recently begun to shift the understanding of what should be considered excessive punishment for juveniles. The first big case, Roper v. Simmons, stemmed from a murder that had been committed by a boy named Christopher Simmons, who was 17 in 1993. One night, he and a friend broke into the house of Shirley Crook, they tied her up and they covered her eyes and they threw her off a bridge. Simmons confessed to the crime, and although he was a child at the time and he had no record, he was sentenced to the death penalty. But in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that a person could not be put to death for a crime that he committed as a child.
Clint: Over the next 10 years, the court made three major rulings regarding juvenile sentencing. In 2010, in a case called Graham v. Florida, they ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for any crime other than murder.
Josie: In 2012, they ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences were unconstitutional. So to be clear, this didn’t mean that Life without parole sentences were unconstitutional period for juveniles, it just meant that state laws could not require that sentence even if the defendant had been convicted of murder.
Clint: And in 2016, in a Supreme Court ruling called Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court made that ruling retroactive. That meant that every person in prison who had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as a child, had the opportunity to be resentenced. What’s more, the court said that Life without parole sentences for a child were only appropriate in cases of quote, “irreparable corruption.”
Josie: We’ve come a long way even in the past fifteen years, but we still have such a long way to go in juvenile justice. So first of all, life without parole sentences for juveniles are still legal, and even though a lot of these people who have been in prison since childhood finally were entitled to a resentencing hearing after the most recent ruling, Montgomery v. Louisiana, many prosecutors in places like Detroit and Seth Williams in Philadelphia, just tried to re-sentence them to life without parole again.
Clint: In other words, there are people who are being sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for something that they did as a child, when they were 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. And I think about the things that I was doing and the decisions that I was making and specifically the types of decisions that I might’ve made had I grown up in a different set of circumstances. I think about being a high school teacher and I think about my freshman and how they were children. Some of them were so small and the idea that they would spend the rest of their lives in prison for something that they did at this age, even for those who weren’t small, right? Because I also don’t want to contribute to this idea that small people are less or more innocent than larger people. They were 14 or 15 or 16. And, and anytime I think about this, I think about how morally incongruent it would be to tell someone at that age that they had no opportunity to get out of prison.
Josie: Yeah. They had no opportunities to improve. That this is who they were and this is who they would be forever. It’s cruel.
Clint: Exactly. And that’s something that animates my thinking around this all the time. And uh, so in 2015, the Supreme Court victory gave Henry Montgomery, whom the Montgomery v. Louisiana case is named after, the chance to go in front of the Parole Board for the first time ever. He had been in prison since 1963, when he was 17. The parole board, however, denied his parole. He remains in Angola prison in Louisiana and he is 72 years old. So just so people understand, the person who the court case in the Supreme Court is named after that provides the opportunity for retroactive re-sentencing for thousands of people in this country, that very person was denied parole in the state of Louisiana.
Josie: Yeah, he won this case, you know, again, so many people who kind of were suffering the same fate as him and yet Louisiana’s Parole Board still thinks that he should remain in prison. He’s 72 and he’s been there since 1963. The idea that we live in a country and under a system that feels comfortable telling a child they never deserve to be outside of a prison ever again for the rest of their lives, you know, it’s pretty outrageous. Our guest is going to talk more about this, but here’s Bryan Stevenson talking about juveniles serving life without parole sentences.
Bryan Stevenson: Life without parole is supposed to be a judgement that says, this person is beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond rehabilitation, has been given opportunities to change and hasn’t changed and therefore should be properly condemned for their commitment to criminality to violence to destruction. You can never say that about a child of 13 and 14.
Josie: And it’s not only the sentences, it’s the sheer number of children serving time and serving time in adult prisons.
Clint: There’s so many things that contribute to the outrageous number of children locked up in the United States. There’s the school-to-prison pipeline, there is the increasing reliance on law enforcement to address incidents that occur on school property, the list goes on and on.
Josie: Yeah and I went to a school like this here in Atlanta where it was common to see police arresting students for just ridiculous stuff, school related stuff and I can still picture it clear as day, seeing my best friend arrested for skipping school when we were in ninth grade.
Clint: And its dependence on police and prosecutors to discipline kids has had immeasurably bad consequences. On any given day, about 50,000 kids are being detained. Thousands have been convicted of no crime and many are being held for low level nonviolent offenses and unsurprisingly they are disproportionately black. Less than 14 percent of all kids under the age of 18 in America are black, but they make up 43 percent of boys and 34 percent of girls in juvenile facilities.
Josie: And it’s not just the juvenile facilities either. It’s the adult facilities. Those 50,000 kids who are in custody each night, five to 10,000 of them are sitting in an adult facility and although many of them will serve their sentence in a youth facility, by that time, they’ll have already spent a month on average in adult jail before even being convicted of a crime.
Clint: And it’s not just that we detain children with adults either, it is that we charge them as adults. In total around 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults in the United States every year. A quarter of a million kids.
Josie: Part of the reason for this is direct file, which is a policy that allows prosecutors to transfer children to adult court without any judicial oversight. And in many offices prosecutors abuse this practice and they’re really not subject to any political backlash for it.
Clint: We’re all used to this idea now that children are sometimes tried in adult court. The reason we’ve all come to understand, is that they’ve done something serious and deserve an adult punishment. It seems kind of normal at this point.
Josie: But when you think about it, it’s not just illogical, it’s really outrageous. The entire point of the juvenile system, it’s for children because we know they don’t have the impulse control, the forethought, the maturity or the emotional regulation that adults do.
Clint: Their age doesn’t change depending on whether or not they steal a pencil or take someone’s life. Children simply don’t belong in an adult system facing adult punishments. Kids are kids and the science supports this. In fact, multiple studies show that young people’s brains don’t reach full adult maturation until about their mid-twenties and this has huge implications for impulse control and the sorts of decisions that young people make as compared to their older counterparts.
Clint: Here’s Bryan Stevenson again talking about children’s sentenced as adults.
Bryan Stevenson: All kids do stupid things. All kids do bad things. Poor kids, kids who are living in the streets, kids who have no family, kids who are homeless, kids who are drug addicted, kids who have been subjected to a lot of trauma and violence and abuse tend to do bad things that are much worse, that can be violent, that can be criminal, but they’re still kids and their capacity for change is enormous and to ignore that capacity to change is to deny their child status and I think that’s cruel. It’s no less cruel than making kids work in factories at six or seven or subjecting kids to prostitution or abusing kids. All of that’s wrong because kids have vulnerabilities and needs that have to be acknowledged and protected.
Clint: Our guest, Abd’Allah Lateef, is going to talk to us more about what it’s like to be sentenced to life without parole, and now that he’s out, what it’s like to fight against it.
Clint: So we are here with Abd’Allah Lateef who is the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, he is Cofounder of The Redemption Project and Chairman of the organization Life After Life. Abd’Allah, thanks so much for coming.
Josie: Thank you so much.
Abd’Allah Lateef: Thanks for having me.
Clint: Definitely. We’re so grateful for your time and you have a really, really remarkable story and in some ways a story that is counterintuitive for, I think, what a lot of people imagine or assume folks in your position to be in. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about, uh, your own story and how you ended up in this position in the first place.
Abd’Allah Lateef: Yes. Thank you for that. So my story as a youth was typical in the sense that I was just a typical teenager. Born and somewhat raised in Philadelphia, but migrated to the suburbs of Philadelphia in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. And while in Montgomery County was primarily known as a mama’s boy and a church going good door, particularly shy and bashful. And I had an unfortunate bicycling accident which caused me to have reconstructive plastic surgery to repair a severed lip. And the operation was somewhat botched, leaving me with a grotesquely deformed upper lip that took some time before corrected and the swelling was just, astronomically, was huge. And so typical of children, I was teased and bullied for that deformity and my way of dealing with that was to begin lashing out at those who were teased and bullied me for my deformity, which would ultimately result in suspensions and expulsions from school for fighting. And while fighting, although I had two loving parents who provided materially, um, both of them worked full time. And so in those moments where I would be suspended from school and I was supposed to be on punishment of course but being the typical child where my parents were away, I would go out and venture into the streets. And in that course and that interaction, I began to hang out with people who were significantly older than myself and they would often utilize me to either get the money for purchasing reefer or a beer or cigarettes and the likes. And I understood that I was being used for the most part in, in those instances. And that was the basis of the relationship. But at the same time I also recognized they didn’t tease me for my deformity and seemed to accept me for who I was as a, as an individual. That relationship materialized over several months, and turned into years, and there was one individual in particular, Dennis Gibbs, who was a homeless individual, uh, 21 years of age, five years my senior at the time and due to his homeless situation, he on the night, the fateful night of July 9, 1986, asked me to accompany him on a robbery which was unspecified. He said ‘I will give you the details when we get there.’ And as we approached the back of a residential house, he then instructed me what he needed me to do, which was simply that he would sneak into the back door and once he did, I was then to come to the, and knock on the door and just ask for directions to Penn Village at which time he would come from behind the individual, the man, grab him from behind, I was to rifle through his pockets, take his belongings and flea. And so it went as planned, as he grabbed him, pinning his arms, I went into the man’s pockets extracting his wallet and belongings and turned to flee. During that process, the individual was thrown to the ground ultimately receiving a borderline fracture to the femur. He was taken to the hospital that particular evening, released, given Tylenol and an ice pack returned to the hospital the very next day, complaining of pain in the hip after which a new series of, uh, bone scans, X-rays was taken and they concluded that was in fact a borderline fracture and elected to perform surgery. Complications from that surgery ensued. Secondary surgery was performed 18 days after which the individual Edward McEvoy went into cardiac arrest and was unable to be resuscitated and unfortunately passed away and died. Upon his death, the prosecutors and the police actually charged Dennis Gibbs with first degree murder. He in turn implicated myself as his accomplice, where I too was arrested and charged with first, second, third degree murder, voluntary, involuntary manslaughter, robbery, burglary, criminal trespass and criminal conspiracy.
Josie: Right. You were arrested and faced these charges and embarked on a long legal case, including a trial and a plea deal. Can you tell us more about that case and, um, and what happened?
Abd’Allah Lateef: So that was the event that led to my incarceration, of course, I went to trial, was afforded an opportunity to plea guilty to a lesser charge. In fact, I was advised to accept the prosecution’s offer to a lesser charge of manslaughter, in which case I would serve two to five years and I will be out by the time I turned 21. As my parents learned of that decision and that offer in the conversation that ensued between my attorney and I who they had hired and retained, they became livid, not necessarily because of the circumstances, but because that conversation took place without them being present or notified. Ultimately the arguments between my parents and my attorney led to irreconcilable differences in terms of my defense and trial strategy. Uh, the attorney who was representing me at the time sought to withdraw from the case he was permitted by the judge to do so. And I went forward to trial with no further explanation about, uh, no further conversation about the plea offer. What was omitted from the both the offer as well as the circumstances that I was in is that for a felony murder charge, if found guilty, it carries a statutory mandated life without the possibility of parole sentence, and so neither myself or my parents knew of that consequence until after I was found guilty, at which time the judge revoked my bail because I was under a statutory mandate of life without the possibility of parole.
Josie: Oh my gosh.
Josie: So at that point, how old were you when this happened?
Abd’Allah Lateef: By the time I was actually sentenced, I was 19.
Josie: Okay. And so you had been offered just to, just to emphasize this, you had been offered a two to five year sentence via plea, but when you decided not to take the plea, the prosecutor decided that you deserved to spend the rest of your life in prison?
Abd’Allah Lateef: Yes. In whether or not he felt that I deserved to do so or not, I guess we can infer that from the fact that he did not withdraw the second degree murder charge as he had the first degree murder charge. So we can infer that that was a consequence. That was intentional.
Clint: Abd’Allah, when you got this sentence, did you ever, you were, you were 19 years old, 17 years old when you were arrested, did you understand in that moment that someone was telling you that you are gonna spend the rest of your life in a cage without any opportunity to get out? Like did that, did that sink in in that moment or did it not happen until later?
Abd’Allah Lateef: No, it did not happen till later in in terms of just understanding exactly what it means to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. However, in that very instant, just because it was the first time that I had heard something, even heard the fact that I would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, even without fully comprehending the magnitude of exactly what that meant, I knew that that was a dire sentence and it was dramatically different from the two and a half to five year sentence that was in the plea offer. And consequently, in our correspondence and the letters that was presented to me from my attorney prior to his withdrawal is he advised me to accept the prosecution’s offer and if I did not do so I went to trial and got found guilty, then I was subjected to a 10 to 20 year sentence. So there was never any indication that there was, um, a mandatory life sentence that hung in the balance.
Josie: Right. So we spoke earlier on the show before you joined us about some of the criminal cases that have been sort of definitional in changing the way that we think about sentencing someone to life without parole for something that they did as a child. So one of the cases we talked about was Montgomery v. Louisiana and you wrote a very powerful post years ago. And so I’m just going to read part of it here. You said, “As the gravity of the decision began to sink in, I heard and saw several incarcerated persons – juvenile lifers and others – in a state of utter jubilation. I couldn’t restrain the tears from streaming down my cheeks as I allowed myself to consider the implications: the possibility that my now illegal sentence would be reversed. The thought that I might actually be subject to release was intoxicating.” But then you talked about how you realized that it wouldn’t be applied retroactively and I’m interested in keeping the hope, um, through your case and how you have sort of managed to maintain faith throughout your experience before you were granted your 30 year sentence and released more recently after the Montgomery v. Louisiana case.
Abd’Allah Lateef: Yes. That’s an interesting question and it would be disingenuous to say that I actually kept the faith because I really was at a point at that time, it wasn’t just the dejection from the realization that it didn’t apply retroactively, that was just a, another hurdle, another stumbling block in decades of hurdles and stumbling blocks. And it was just at that moment where I really consciously said ‘when is enough enough?’ And irregardless of whether ultimately relief would come, for me this was the last straw. And so I can’t say that I necessarily kept faith in that way. I was determined to give it my all and fight the good fight. But if the outcome did not bring forth relief, then I was prepared to commit suicide.
Clint: I appreciate you sharing that. Um, and, and I, I can’t imagine how, how difficult it must be to be, to be imprisoned when you’re 19 years old, um, and to be told that you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison and to have every effort at a being released, pushed back against and you’re being so, so generous and honest in your response in a way that not a lot of people might be and I can’t, I think it’s important for people to understand that, you know, over the course of 30 years, over the course of three decades, it would be difficult for anyone in that situation, uh, to, to constantly maintain optimism, to maintain hope. And I think it’s important for folks to be cognizant of the fact that there are some dark, dark moments that or many dark moments that people experience over the course of a sentence like that. And, and you had never been in trouble with the law or arrested before the sentence, correct?
Abd’Allah Lateef: Yes. Yes. I have been for a misdemeanor offenses, never any violence in, in any way whatsoever. So this was the first episode of being arrested for violence, usually was shoplifting, with again, the older cohort. So I was never in trouble on my own. It was always as a conspirator being amongst older adults.
Josie: Right. Right.
Clint: Can you talk about the experience of how one attempts to stay,to stay sane or to maintain some semblance of hope and the moments you can, uh, or how one simply gets up every single day when they’re serving a sentence like you were?
Abd’Allah Lateef: Often we talk about personal resilience, the individuals and I can’t, I can’t detrack that individuals do have a remarkable degree of resilience and able to deal with tragedy and suffering trauma and recover from that in ways that are remarkable. But for me there were two things that was happening. One is that there was the religious affiliation that I’ve had with, a relationship that I’ve had. And part of that was my role as a facilitator, as a teacher, as a mentor, as a father figure, a big brother for many, for decades, working in that capacity. At the same time being a advocate and activist, trying to promote not just criminal justice and sentencing reform, but also the broader social justice and being engaged in that work as a constant, that didn’t give me a lot of time to kind of dwell in the murkiness of the abyss that I was in.
Clint: It gave you a purpose.
Abd’Allah Lateef: And I didn’t want to select that word because it didn’t. It just felt as though it was a responsibility and that was because of what I witnessed and experienced in my own personal travails with the, with the criminal justice system, but also being incarcerated and seeing the end results of systemic injustice up close and personal. And as that process of maturation and self-education and recognition just compelled me as an individual to try to do something to reverse that harm. And in doing so, I didn’t have a sense of purpose as such because internally I was still suffering despite putting forth those, those efforts.
Abd’Allah Lateef: And so what happened over time, and, uh, and I’m still grappling with, with this today, is that you develop a sense of loss of time, right? The whole concept of time, I mean, yes, I know that at this time I’m incarcerated for whether it’s 15, 20 going on 30 years now, I get that, but I have no sense of what that actually means. Meaning that, because one day resembles the next, it’s hard to discern as weeks turn into months and months turn into years and years turn into decades and it’s literally the same thing day after day after day. The whole concept of time is different, but at the same time, internally I’m feeling every second of that misery because of the engagement with youth who are directly impacted and have been abused by or subjected to systemic abuse. Whether it started in the home, whether the community, whether it was institutions, responses to harms that was caused by marginalized people-
Clint: And this is work you’re doing on the inside.
Abd’Allah Lateef: Right. Right.
Abd’Allah Lateef: And so you begin to not only internalize your own suffering, but that of others. As you were saying, people who clearly have mental problems and instead of being treated in a mental health facility, you see them being placed in maximum security jails or prisons where none of their needs are being met. As a human being you can’t turn a blind eye to that and act as if that doesn’t exist and you see the abuses that are taking place and so you begin to, as I say, internalize not only your own grief, pain and suffering, but that of others around you, and as you engage and develop those relationships, then that tragedy that impacts others also impacts you as well. And this is why I say it’s not personal resilience or anything like that, or even purpose because the level of trauma that I was internalizing from my own suffering and that of others around me, I truly was prepared to commit suicide if there was no end to the suffering that I was feeling at the time.
Josie: Right. You are talking to us now after having been released from prison. You are no longer serving a life without parole sentence after the ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana opened up the door for resentencing people like you, people who were no longer children but had been sentenced to life without parole for something that they did as a child. So can you talk to us about being resentenced and about your experience, just what you had to face and what you had to deal with, um, and during the recent sensing process and how it felt once you were actually released from prison?
Abd’Allah Lateef: Yeah. So the process was grueling and it was grueling primarily because there was a sense of weariness, right? Battle fatigue because this was literally decades in the making and to finally get to that moment where there is a resentencing. So there’s a lot of emotion and some of which is contrasted, right? Because there’s a certain paradox that there as well. And so there was certainly anxiety because I was in Montgomery County, the very first one to be resentenced because I was the first child in Montgomery County to be charged as an adult for homicide.
Josie: Wow. Wow.
Abd’Allah Lateef: And so I was also the very first to go forward for resentencing and no one particularly knew what that would look like. And so there’s anxiety just dealing with the unknown. But beyond that, if you could imagine, if you can conceptualize, I know what happened on the night of July 9, 1986. My codefendant, who is now deceased, knows what happened and unfortunately the victim knows what happened as well. Because I know what that reality is it was always difficult for me to reconcile how of all of the cases, whether you agree with the consequence or not, that my case in Montgomery County, was the case where we would now say that this individual is worthy of spending the rest of their life, the rest of my life, in prison, when there was clearly no intent to cause serious bodily harm, let alone someone’s death, and so knowing that and knowing that I didn’t physically throw the man to the ground which caused a chain of events which lead to a heart attack which lead to death. Even if we accept the legitimacy of the chain of causation under these circumstances participating in an unarmed robbery where an individual was injured leading up to their death and the consequence being life, even if we accept that as, as as a reasonable penological objective, there are so many cases that I personally knew of, of individuals who were involved in homicides, some of whom committed deliberate homicide and killed others and didn’t have the same consequence. Whether it was through plea or whether it was through just not being charged as an adult and then seeing other adults who have been involved in cases far more severe, far more gruesome, if you will, and didn’t have the same consequence that I had as a child and to have to live with that for decades. Seeing people who are recalcitrant, unreformed and committing harm go in and out, in and out, in and out, in and out of jail for various reasons, some of which may not necessarily be their fault because there’s a systemic thing that’s at play as well, but just the mere fact of seeing this for decade after decade. And so getting to the point of the sentencing part of that paradox was that I did not commit a violent act physically, was not directly responsible for killing another human being. And on top of that, the maturation process where I have evolved into my fullness as a, as a human being as much as possible in the state of captivity, as it were, a state of incarceration, and then have to justify why I shouldn’t be or why I should be given a second chance when every fiber in my being feels as if I wasn’t even given a first chance.
Clint: Can you talk about what it felt like in that moment when you realized you would be released? What was going through, what was going through your head?
Abd’Allah Lateef: Yeah, so again, it was short lived relief because even though the resentencing and part of which, it was a phenomenal thing, and I would be remiss if I didn’t just speak about it, there was a moment just through the genuineness of not only repentance and trying to make amends and having sincere remorse and regret for participating in something that ultimately lead in someone’s demise. When I had the opportunity to address some of the family members for the first time, and so having that opportunity to speak to the family for the first time, I didn’t want to do it in open court unless I had their permission to do so and so as I was going through the process of resentencing and had the opportunity to take the stand and address the court and obviously part of that would have been apologizing to the family and articulating how contrite I was, not just in that moment, but since that incident happened and because I asked their permission as to whether they would prefer that I do so an open court or privately, and if they thought that it will be done privately then I would not mention anything in open court because this was about them and I wasn’t about trying to impress the judge or get the best sentence I can, but this was something that was personal between them and I and they appreciated that candor and asked that it will be done in private. And I had a wonderful judge who ultimately afforded us his chambers. And a long story short, we had an opportunity to really share and open up and have a moment of honesty, candor, and vulnerability.
Abd’Allah Lateef: And in that moment, everything that I said was exactly what they needed to hear decades earlier. So where they were up to that moment opposed to my resentencing because they didn’t know what my sentiment was, they didn’t know how I felt. Hearing it in the first person, for the first time, 30 something years later changed the entire mood of not just the hearing, but it was healing. A moment of healing for those who were directly impacted and that could have been facilitated decades earlier if it wasn’t for policies, practices and unnecessary adversarial decision making that goes on between district attorneys and defense attorneys and sometimes judges that inhibit that ability to move forward any type of restorative justice practices even when family members are most in need of that. And so that was a cathartic moment for both myself but also a healing moment for the family as well. And I just didn’t want to be remiss without mentioning that aspect of it as well. So to your essential question about how I felt, again, it was, it was a cathartic moment for me just to finally get past that stage and then to have the judge agree to sentence me to time served or 30 to life, which having already served 31 years made me automatically eligible for parole. That in it of itself was a relief, but again, short lived just simply because now it’s what, what’s going to happen at the parole process, right? All of this is new for everyone involved. All of the stakeholders, it’s a new process. No one knows exactly what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. So there’s just another level of anxiety as we move forward to the, to the next hurdle as it were.
Josie: So can you talk to us about the work that you’re doing now? You’ve obviously started this organization called The Redemption Project that tells a lot of these stories and that’s one part of, you know, many roles that you’re serving now that you’re no longer incarcerated and we’d love for you to talk more about the work that you’ve been doing since you’ve been out.
Abd’Allah Lateef: Right. So in terms of, uh, work with The Redemption Project, that is something that actually begin its inception, started with another formerly life sentenced child John Pace and Kempis Songster, both who have, who were formerly life sentenced children and it originated in storytelling. Trying to change the narrative because we’ve all been demonized and the victims of demonization and we know about the superpredator narrative and all of those things there have since been debunked. However, the residual effects of that still permeate throughout society. And as we were working through those processes of advocacy and trying to insert our humanity into the conversation so that we’re not looked at as murderers or predators, superpredators or any of those adjectives that really are meant to demean. The way to do that was to tell stories that really emphasize and lift up our humanity. Even for those of us who have done a tremendous amount of harm in adolescence. And so in the process of telling those stories and developing narrative and giving a different view of individuals have caused harm, part of that was also all of us who are involved have a deep longing for redemption, and that also involved being able to articulate how contrite we were and to do whatever was in our powers and abilities to make amends for the harms that we caused as best way as we were able. And so The Redemption Project began to develop ideas about how we could do outreach to those people who are harmed by children and those who were open to the idea of restorative practices that center around hope and healing. Recognizing the harm that was done, but also understanding that harmed people, often harm people, but it is also true that healed people can help heal others. And so as we, as childs committed harm, despite the fact that many of us have ourselves been harmed, we had ultimately came to a place of healing. And so the responsibility to help bring about healing, especially to those individuals and communities that we have harmed. And so that is The Redemption Project. That is the chief goal and mission statement of The Redemption Project. I’ve also worked with the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, which I continue to work with as a volunteer and was also a fellow of the Philadelphia Reentry Think Tank, which gives me proximity to some of the systemic problems that we see even amongst those who are being repatriated into society and some of the struggles of reintegration and reentry. But I also am the Chairman of Life After Life, which is a recently formed nonprofit that was developed by formerly life sentenced children who are now in a process of organizing and trying to do what we can to continue to advocate that children be treated in age appropriate ways in the front end as well as the back end for those who still remain behind and are sentenced to de facto life sentences. And then utilizing our experiences to do youth outreach and engagement and trying to reduce harm that takes place in our communities. And then added to that as trying to do infused restorative practices into the criminal justice system. And that’s fundamentally what the mandate of Life After Life is. And so as it relates to my current position with the National Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, acting in the capacity of the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, then some of that work is the same in terms of the advocacy and trying to ensure that children are treated in age appropriate ways both at the front end in terms of not going into the adult system and then trying to ensure that children are not exposed to excessive sentencing, extreme sentencing policies and practices and then also doing that engagement to ensure that individuals who have been returned to society, particularly after multiple decades of incarceration, are afforded opportunities to just eke out a living and survive, but to actually thrive.
Clint: Such important work. And I’m kind of curious just what is it like, I mean, you’ve been out since what date? What was your date of release?
Abd’Allah Lateef: October 17, 2017.
Clint: So you’ve been out for for just a little bit over a year. A year and a few months. What is, as compared to being inside for 31 years, what is, what has that transition been like?
Abd’Allah Lateef: So there’s a lot going on, obviously with that process, there is a lot of paradox, right? There’s a lot of contradiction. So part of it is that without doubt it’s still difficult almost a year and a half later to qualify the sense of relief and exuberation. And the overused analogy is the fish that’s out of water right on the side of the shore just struggling to get breath and to get back to water. What makes us alive as human beings is our senses, right? Those five senses through which we experience the world and the very essence and nature of prison is to either eviscerate or diminish your ability to exercise those senses. Your sense of vision is always constricted to steel and concrete, drab colors, so that diminishes your vision. Likewise with your sense of smell and your touch, everything is hard. The softness of a woman, your embrace of a child, those things are taken away from you or severely diminished to the extent that it takes away from the very essence of your humanity, which in essence is killing you. And so in understanding that those are the experiences that you have in prison, it’s not just that you have a life sentence, it is also the fact that the very life force is being taken out of you and that everything that you utilize to, the senses that you utilize to experience the world, are just severely diminished or taken away from you all together. And so from that perspective to finally be in a situation where you can utilize the full benefit of your senses and experience the world in a way that makes you alive, you just can’t conceptualize that without understanding what it means to go through that level of suffering and deprivation. But beyond that, even in appreciating that moment, that freedom, you can’t help but notice the conditions around you. And I am obviously from Philadelphia, living in Philadelphia, which is the most impoverished big city in the nation. And so it’s easy to go through the city and see the effects of gentrification. To see the impacts of racial disparities in, in, in terms of opportunity, to see economic despair and to see the collapse of social structures and why you appreciate freedom. It’s reminiscent of some of the very circumstances that you witness in prison in terms of those structural injustices that are just as prevalent outside as it is inside. And to that extent it’s quite disheartening because you spend decades after decades after decades longing to get back to home and then you get home and you see your community is in many respects reminiscent of the misery that you just left.
Josie: Wow. Wow.
Abd’Allah Lateef: And so you have to grapple with that as well.
Clint: I think that’s a really important, important point. And this is a conversation that obviously could go on for hours and hours, but we are so appreciative of your time. We’re appreciative of your honesty. We are appreciative of the work that you do for folks who, uh, who are still on the inside and folks who are transitioning out. So thank you.
Abd’Allah Lateef: And thank you once again for a 40 minute opportunity to share with you my experience. And hopefully this conversation will add to the national conversation that is long overdue in terms of the direct impact that our policies have on individuals, not just children, but the detriment that it has on human beings who have caused harm and at the same time are recipients of systemic harm as well.
Abd’Allah Lateef: So I definitely appreciate your work as well and the opportunity to allow people like myself to add my voice to that conversation.
Josie: Thank you so much.
Josie: That was Abd’Allah Lateef, the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network and we’re so grateful to have Abd’Allah for joining us and talking about his own personal experience in this system.
Clint: Thanks for listening to Justice in America. I’m Clint Smith.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: You can find us on Twitter at @Justice_Podcast, like us on Facebook at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes.
Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. We’ll talk to you next week.