Every Friday morning, I drive down the interstate to Salem, about an hour south of my home in Portland, Oregon. On those mornings, I’m always conscious of the contrast between my life (a home, family, a young child) and the lives of the men I’m on my way to meet. Many of them are of a similar age to me, but they’ve grown up and are watching the years pass by under very different circumstances.
My weekly trips to Salem are to visit a group of juvenile lifers at one of the 14 Oregon prisons. All were sentenced as teens to long stretches in prison: at least 20 years up to as much as true life. Some have the certain knowledge that, absent some major changes, they will die in prison. Even for those who may at some point have an opportunity to ask the parole board for release, it’s far from clear that they will be allowed to return to their families.
There are too many people serving a life sentence in Oregon for crimes committed as children. Some have already spent more years in prison than on the outside and yet have many more years to go before release becomes a possibility. For their crimes they have lost their liberty and everything that goes with that: a family of their own, a home, a career, and the freedom to choose their future.
The prison I visit is somber, and stern in appearance. Every detail from the watchtower to the barbed wire to the multiple locked gates and doors I have to pass through to reach the prison chapel where we meet is designed to make it clear that you are not in control and that you are being watched. Yet, I feel my excitement and energy grow as I approach the chapel because I know I am about to spend time with people who strive to be deeply intentional about the lives they lead and dedicated to doing better each day in a way that defies stereotypes about them. There’s something invigorating and inspiring about that spirit; this meeting is the best part of my workweek. I believe every man there is painfully conscious of the very great harm he has caused and is striving to find any way he can of doing good by living purposefully and in service of others.
I began my visits with some of Oregon’s juvenile lifers about 18 months ago because the state was then engaged in a conversation about sentencing reform that is echoing around the country. I wanted to know what the lifers thought and felt; importantly, I wanted to see how they could contribute to the reform effort.
Since 2005, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has gradually narrowed the application of the most severe punishments when applied to people who were under 18 when they committed their crimes. The court has embraced the implications of established brain science that show youth brain development makes teenagers and those in early adulthood cognitively different than older adults. It has ended the death penalty for minors, ended life without parole for non-homicide crimes, and, in Miller v. Alabama, ended mandatory life without parole for all crimes. The justices went a step further in 2016, finding that the ban on mandatory life without parole should also apply retroactively.
These Supreme Court rulings—along with growing understanding in the courts and among legislators of the scientific research on youth brain development, and heightened public awareness of the nation’s mass incarceration crisis—have helped drive reform in numerous states. Since the Miller decision, dozens of states have changed their laws for young people convicted of homicide to allow the possibility of parole. In some states, reforms are going beyond a narrow application of Miller, taking the view that the decision also applies to other lengthy sentences.
Here in Oregon, my organization, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, was involved with many others in a successful effort to pass a landmark youth sentencing reform bill, Senate Bill 1008, in 2019. SB 1008, among other changes, finally ended life without parole as a sentencing option for those under 18. It severely curtailed the ability of prosecutors to have children tried in adult court by returning the state to a waiver system. To those rare youth who are waived into the adult court, it offered hope in two ways to those serving long sentences: (1) It created an opportunity for a second look after an individual has served half of their sentence, where the sentencing judge would consider whether that individual should serve the remainder of their term in the community. (2) After 15 years, one would be eligible for a parole hearing.
SB 1008 attracted bipartisan support, passing both houses of the Oregon legislature with the required supermajority. It was hailed as a historic coming-of-age for our state’s criminal justice reform movement and a watershed in how our state responds to youth offending. One thing it did not do, however, is apply retroactively. None of the men I meet with each week at the prison will benefit from the law. In all the debates and discussion that surrounded the passage of the law, many people proclaimed that “we should treat kids as kids” and that “young people are different.” Few have the desire to honestly confront the question of what we do with the left behind. The lost boys and girls, now aged into men and women who are still sitting in prison, serving out decades under laws we have just agreed are wrong since they are inconsistent with the latest science and best practices.
It speaks to the character of the men in the juvenile lifers group that they poured themselves into the effort to support the passage of SB 1008 even as they endured the knowledge that they would not benefit. They testified and presented to decision makers, disclosing the painful details of their pasts and laying bare their own serious failings and bad decisions to try to save our community from perpetuating the harms done by bad laws, policies, and practices. Some saw their stories and lives used by opponents of reform to argue that the law should not pass; these critics intentionally created boogeymen out of youth whom they have never met or engaged with or had any knowledge about. Untethered from facts or reality, these opponents included outright lies and misleading distortions in a failed effort to fearmonger the bill into legislative oblivion.
I believe in the philosophy on which Senate Bill 1008 and similar reforms around the nation are based: that we don’t give up on our young people, even those who have committed the worst crimes. Rehabilitation is possible for them and the capacity for change is remarkable. We need to continue to press for an expansion of the mandates of SB 1008 so that we remedy the glaring and arbitrary contradiction we have now where we acknowledge our past policies as wrong yet let people languish in prison under these very policies.
That’s why the Oregon Justice Resource Center is proud to launch a new series with The Appeal. “Left Behind: Firsthand Accounts of Growing Up in Prison From Individuals Sentenced as Children” will share the stories of people living out the reality of laws and policies that say yes, we will send our children to die in prison. This collection of articles will be published throughout 2020 to engage us in the real experiences, the hopes, and the fears of juvenile lifers. I don’t know all of what will be revealed through this truth-telling, but I know it will be honest and enrich our understanding of lives that many of us find hard to imagine.
In particular, these are the topics we plan to cover:
- What it feels like to be one of those “left behind” by sentencing reform in Oregon.
- Growing up in prison and how relationships are key to rehabilitation.
- The challenges of the transition from youth detention to adult prison and how community is built inside.
- The necessity of giving people a meaningful opportunity for release.
- The experience of the families of juvenile lifers.
- What a difference the power of proximity makes and how we might engage with young people who offend, not to vilify them but to connect.
- The effect of reforms on victims and their families, accountability, and improving victim support.
- Racial disparities and racism in the juvenile system.
- The experience of women and girls as juvenile lifers.
- What a successful release of a former juvenile lifer looks like and how it points the way to giving others a chance.
- Confronting the need to make youth sentencing reforms retroactive and expand them to cover “emerging adults” (18- to 25-year-olds).
The tragedy that my friends, their victims, and the families of both groups must endure is the impossibility of turning back the clock to wipe out the terrible harms that have been done. I believe the greatest sign of remorse that juvenile lifers can make is the way they live, whether they’re behind bars or freed because of reforms. How we treat them reflects most of all on our values, not theirs. We must strive to reorient our legal system to reject the oversimplification of complex societal problems and more important, reject the oversimplification of people. Remaking our legal system with more dignity, compassion, and humanity is deeply necessary and urgent work. Radical love and commitment to the well-being of our youth is the least we owe them; every individual, most especially our youth, deserves the dignity of redemption. It is time for our legal system to reflect this basic truth.
Bobbin Singh is the founding executive director of Oregon Justice Resource Center. This column was edited by Alice Lundell, the center’s director of communication.