A sentence too cruel for children
By Alan K. Simpson
Rather than serving in the U.S. Senate for almost 20 years, or having
so many other wonderful life experiences, I could have served a longer
sentence in prison for some of the stupid, reckless things I did as a
teenager. I am grateful to have gotten a second chance — and I
believe our society should make a sustained investment in offering
second chances to our youth.
By Raphael Johnson | NEWSWEEK
At 17 I was captain of my high-school football team and on my way to
college. But in November 1992 I went to a birthday party with friends.
We were tussling around, and the chaperones threw us out. One of them
knocked me to the ground, and I felt ashamed and angry. My friend had
a gun in his car. I got it, came back, and fired three shots, killing
one of the chaperones. I was convicted of murder and given 10 to 25
years in prison.
I grew up in an area known for gun violence and drugs. Like a lot of
boys, I looked up to tough men who could fight and had been in prison.
My first arrest came when I was 12: I stole my grandmother’s gun and
took it to school. At 14 I was sent to a boys’ home. I studied hard
and won a full scholarship to attend the University of Detroit high
school. I excelled there, but my thinking was twisted. I didn’t know
how to manage my anger. As a result, a man lost his life the night of
On the day I was to begin Marygrove College, I started a prison term
instead. I was 18 and had hope: I could be paroled when I was still a
relatively young man. I spent six of my 12 years in prison in solitary
confinement. I promised myself I would read 1,000 books. I read 1,300.
I became certified as a carpenter, plumber, electrician, and
I was released from prison in 2004 after my third parole hearing. I
received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Detroit
Mercy. I started a motivational-speaking and fitness-training company.
As a community-reintegration coordinator, I help other ex-offenders
start anew. I’m proof that people, especially teens, can’t be judged
by the worst thing they ever did.
There are countless examples of former juvenile offenders like myself
who, given the opportunity to be contributing members of society, have
done great things. Former senator Alan Simpson committed a serious
federal offense as a juvenile (destroying government property) but
became a GOP leader. Terry Ray was a violent repeat offender but
became an assistant U.S. attorney. Charles Dutton was convicted of
manslaughter at 17 but became a respected actor and director. Dozens
of studies show that overwhelming majorities of juvenile offenders
mature out of committing crimes.
Next month the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Sullivan v.
Florida and Graham v. Florida, two cases that will decide if it’s
constitutional to sentence teens to life in prison without parole. The
court should give people like me a reason to keep improving
themselves. Individuals who have committed crimes as teens should be
allowed to have their sentences reviewed. Teenagers change.
Adolescents, even more than adults, have enormous capacity for
redemption. I know.
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Johnson recently won a primary election for the Detroit city council.
When I was a teen, we rode aimlessly around town, shot things up,
started fires and generally raised hell. It was only dumb luck that we
never really hurt anyone. At 17, I was caught destroying federal
property and was put on probation. For two years, my probation officer
visited me and my friends at home, in the pool hall, at school and on
the basketball court. He was a wonderful guy who listened and really
cared. I did pretty well on probation. At 21, though, I got into a
fight in a tough part of town and ended up in jail for hitting a
I spent only one night in jail, but that was enough. I remember
thinking, “I don’t need too much more of this.”
I had a chance to turn my life around, and I took it. This term, the
U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether other young people get that
On Nov. 9, the court will hold oral argument in Sullivan v. Florida
and Graham v. Florida, two cases that will determine whether it is
constitutional to sentence a teenager to life in prison without parole
for a crime that did not involve the taking of a life. There is a
simple reason the criminal justice system should treat juveniles and
adults differently: Kids are a helluva lot dumber than adults. They do
stupid things — as I did — and some even commit serious crimes, but
youths don’t really ever think through the consequences. It’s for this
reason that every state restricts children from such consequential
actions as voting, serving on juries, purchasing alcohol or marrying
without parental consent.
The Supreme Court recognized the differences between teenagers and
adults when it held a few years ago, in Roper v. Simmons, that it was
unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on defendants younger
than 18. Locking up a youth for the rest of his life, with no hope for
parole, is surely unconstitutional for the same reasons. The person
you are at 13 or 17 is not the person you are at 30, 40 or 50.
Everyone old enough to look back on his or her teenage years knows
Peer pressure is a huge part of youth behavior, whether one grows up
in Washington, D.C., or Cody, Wyo. The guys will say, “Go get the gun.
We’ll pick up just enough money for tonight.” And almost unthinkingly,
you’ll do it. There is simply no way to know at the time of sentencing
whether a young person will turn out “good” or “bad.” The only option
is to bring him or her before a parole board — after some number of
years — and give the person the chance to declare, “I’m a different
person today” — and then prove it.
Parole boards can examine how youth offenders spent their time in
prison. Did they read books or work in the library? Did they make
furniture? Get a college degree? Those are critical questions for
If at that review a parole board finds out that a miscreant hasn’t
changed, then keep him or her in prison. But some juvenile offenders
make real efforts while they are in jail, and we should make honest
adjustments for them.
We all know youths who have changed for the better. When I was a
lawyer in Cody, the court sometimes appointed me to represent juvenile
offenders, and parents who knew of my history often asked for help
with their children. I once handled the case of an 18-year-old who
stole a car and drove it to Seattle. I later hired him as chief of
staff for my Senate office, and he turned out to be one of the most
able of the people I put in that job.
I was lucky that the bullets I stole from a hardware store as a
teenager and fired from my .22-caliber rifle never struck anyone. I
was fortunate that the fires I set never hurt anyone. I heard my wake-
up call and listened — and I went on to have many opportunities to
serve my country and my community.
When a young person is sent “up the river,” we need to remember that
all rivers can change course.
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The writer, a Republican, was a U.S. senator from Wyoming from 1977 to
1996. He is among former juvenile offenders who have submitted a
friend-of-the-court brief in support of the petitioners in Sullivan v.
Florida and Graham v. Florida.
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The OpEd also appears in the Miami Herald and other papers: