My 99-year prison sentence started in Oak Park Heights, Minnesota’s only maximum-security prison. Built into the side of a hill, the prison has acquired the unsettling myth of being underground. Upon my arrival, I believed it was true.
To enter the cellblock, I rode an elevator that slowly descended three levels. I felt condemned to a deep dungeon and thought I would never see daylight again. Surprisingly, after I exited the elevator I was greeted by a burst of sunshine through windows that were facing the prisoners’ recreation yard.
I was also relieved to discover that my cell wasn’t underground and it also possessed a window. The sun’s warm embrace would reach me after all.
Two weeks after I arrived at Oak Park Heights, I saw a man stab another man in the neck. It was the first of many violent altercations that I would see in prison on my cherished sunny days. As appalling as this experience was for me at age 25, I can only imagine the despair felt by the children who Minnesota incarcerates.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics 2011 report revealed that the number of Minnesota prisoners under age 18 increased by more than 145 percent between 2009 and 2010. Adding fuel to the fire, the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offered to buy and operate state prisons across the nation. CCA claimed it’s a great opportunity for states to balance their budget. But part of the contract deal requires states to guarantee a 90 percent occupancy rate in their prisons for 20 years. In effect, the unethical monetary motivation encourages states to hand out long prison sentences not to achieve justice, but to maintain a lucrative contract deal.
No one deserves to be in prison at age 50 for something
they did at age 14 if their mentality has improved.
This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a decision that made mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional for children. But the court didn’t go far enough. Its ruling simply gives the trial judge discretion to choose whether to sentence a child to life with or without the possibility of parole. We must create better solutions to deal with children who commit violent crimes such as murder.
Children don’t deserve to sit behind bars for life. This may strike a nerve with some people, especially people who have lost a loved one to a senseless crime committed by a young person.
I understand how tragic this is. I’ve suffered the same loss. But legislators, prosecutors, and society shouldn’t give up on the transformation and redemption possibilities for children.
I don’t mean to suggest that violent youth should be coddled or that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Crime demands consequences and children must be instilled with a sense of personal responsibility. Violent youth should be removed from society but only until they accept being a responsible citizen. No one deserves to be in prison at age 50 for something they did at age 14 if their mentality has improved.
Many juveniles sentenced to life in prison who are now young adults have changed their criminal thinking. Some have even demonstrated a strong desire and ability to produce positive change in their community.
The community has tremendously more to gain from releasing these people than by keeping them and their desire to help locked in a concrete closet with steel bars. Their release wouldn’t devalue the impact of their crime or the life of their victim. Their positive community service would actually heal the community and adds to the memory of their victim.
In the critical and highly impressionable learning stages of child development, there are many factors that make children susceptible to making poor decisions. Home environments, neighborhoods, poverty and other social forces play a significant role in developing children’s behavior.
In Kids for Cash (New Press, 2012), William Ecenbarger chronicles a recent scandal involving a private for-profit detention facility giving two judges millions in cash kickbacks for keeping the facility fully occupied with children.
Ecenbarger revealed that the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice found that due to cognitive development children are “not as blameworthy as adults when they violate laws.” And focusing on rehabilitation more than punishment “does not excuse youths of their crimes; rather, it acknowledges the development stage and its role in the crime committed and punishes appropriately.”
We shouldn’t throw the key away on the youth because they struggle to cope in brutal environments. It’s irresponsible for society to condemn children to a lifetime of imprisonment when children often reflect the conditions created by society in the first place.
Contact your congressmen and congresswomen. Demand that they change sentencing laws and promote rehabilitations instead of lifetime incarceration for children and fund programs that focus on altering the conditions our youth face. All children are redeemable, and they are worth the effort to try and save.
Jeffery Young welcomes reader responses to Jeffery Young #213390, 7600 525th St., Rush City, MN 55069.