Just last week, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery found out he would spend yet another Christmas behind bars in Louisiana. He has spent more than 50 Christmases there, but he thought this year might be different. The parole board was set to hear his case for release, but on the day of the hearing, the board delayed it.
In 1963, when John F. Kennedy was president, a judge sentenced the then 17-year-old Montgomery to life without parole. America is the only place in the world where prosecutors regularly try kids as adults and request that kids be sentenced to die behind bars with no hope of freedom.
But Montgomery now has a second chance, thanks to a string of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2012 the Supreme Court recognized that kids are different from adults. They have underdeveloped brains, impairing judgment and impulse control, and are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure. Unsurprisingly, those who make their way into the criminal-justice system are often themselves victims (pdf) of physical abuse, sexual abuse, extreme poverty and trauma at elevated levels.
Because of these differences, the Supreme Court eliminated life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder, and severely limited it for kids charged with murder, ruling that only the “irreparably corrupt” can receive a juvenile life-without-parole sentence. And in 2016, in Henry Montgomery’s appeal, the court made that decision retroactive.
Montgomery is now one of the more than 2,100 “juvenile lifers” in America’s prisons waiting to plead their case.
Still, the sentence prevails, especially in Michigan—where we’ve all lived and either played sports or coached. While 19 states and the District of Columbia have formally eliminated juvenile life without parole, and while prosecutors in most states almost never seek it, district attorneys in Michigan, Louisiana and a few isolated pockets are leading the charge to keep kids behind bars. Forever.
Take Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. As of July of 2016 (pdf), Wayne County had more than 150 people with juvenile life-without-parole sentences—the second highest in the country. Ninety percent of those kids are black, even though black people make up just 39 percent of the population. The elected prosecutor, Kym Worthy, has pushed to maintain the original life sentence in nearly 40 percent of cases of juvenile life without parole, even though the Supreme Court has said that only the rare kid should qualify. Jessica Cooper, the elected prosecutor in nearby Oakland County, Mich., is asking for death behind bars in almost 90 percent of the proceedings.
During our recent Detroit listen-and-learn tour focused on juvenile justice, several of us heard moving stories about those juvenile lifers who have now been given a second chance. We met Edward Sanders, who at 17 was sentenced to life without parole for participating in a drive-by shooting even though he was not the shooter. His accomplishments behind bars are remarkable. He served on a Michigan committee to help improve relations between prison staff and inmates. He received his bachelor’s degree, took a paralegal course and served as a resident jailhouse lawyer, helping other inmates with their pleadings. He even taught classes. And in July of this year, after more than 40 years in prison, he was resentenced and paroled.
But there are hundreds of people like Sanders who are no longer a danger to society and have something to contribute. Like Sanders, they should be given an opportunity to show they have changed and earn their release.
When prosecutors like those in Michigan ask to maintain juvenile life-without-parole sentences, they are saying that people who received lengthy sentences as kids should not have the opportunity to plead their cases to a parole board even after serving decades for their crimes—no matter how changed or how successful they have been in classes or programs. That’s a startling claim to make about a kid who committed a crime before he or she could vote, order a drink, join the military or, for some, drive a car.
These prosecutors are simply refusing to comply with the Supreme Court’s mandate. That should change. They should let individuals convicted as children plead their cases to a parole board after spending decades in prison, exercising empathy instead of relying on overly harsh juvenile sentences. State legislators can also pass legislation to end juvenile life without parole. We place trust in our elected officials to follow the law and do the right thing, but they are failing us. We call on our elected leaders to stop betraying the public trust and to end juvenile life without parole forever.
This article was published in partnership with In Justice Today.
Stan Van Gundy is head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Tobias Harris and Anthony Tolliver are current NBA players for the Detroit Pistons. Anquan Boldin and DeAndre Levy are former NFL players for the Detroit Lions.