April 29, 2019, 11:31 am
A couple of months ago, I wrote about a new TV show on Fox called “Proven Innocent.” I argued that a show about innocent people in prison was a sign of a culture shift in attitudes about prison and punishment, and I predicted that more such shows would follow. I was right.
Two shows, among others, are Van Jones’s show The Redemption Project on CNN. This highly anticipated show delves into the question of whether or not offenders can be redeemed, and what that looks like. The shows tag line is, “Face the past. Heal the future.” It also addresses some of the difficult questions of rehabilitation and forgiveness. These discussions are centered around the stories of offenders and their victims.
Another new series, on A&E, highlights the stories of people sentenced to life in prison as juvenile offenders. These offenders are often referred to as “juvenile lifers.” After a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Miller v. Alabama, 2012) ruled that mandatorily sentencing a juvenile offender to life in prison was unconstitutional, many of these offender’s stories have come to light. This series tackles the complex and often tragic stories of young offenders whose lives were forever altered by their decision to harm someone at such a young age. It also gives voice to the families of their victims who now must re-live the crime that took their loved one’s lives when these juvenile offenders are re sentenced.
Crime of any kind, but especially crime that forever alters lives, is complex and fraught with raw emotions. It’s easy for people (like me) to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation, as if those things are easy. They are not–I get that. Some harms are so tragic, evoking deep emotions, that they make forgiveness seem impossible. Even when a juvenile offender takes a life, it is difficult to know what exactly constitutes justices. For the surviving family, justice might just look like life in prison.
I never want to diminish the visceral emotions or demands for justice that surviving victims and family may have. They deserve justice for the harms they have suffered. I have not walked in their shoes. What I do want to do is to spark a discussion about what justice is. I want to challenge long-held beliefs in America that justice means long incarceration, sometimes for life. I want to challenge beliefs that retribution alone is justice and the sole remedy for harms. Retribution is a part of justice, but it is not the whole story.
A friend of mine, a juvenile lifer, will soon leave prison after recently being re sentenced from a life sentence to a forty-year minimum sentence. He’s served 36 years in prison (he’s eligible for disciplinary credits)–and he’s 50 years old. He committed his crime when he was just fifteen years old. His story is not mine to tell, but I seriously question how a country as progressive as the United States could sentence a fifteen-year old juvenile to spend the rest of his life in prison. His crime was tragic, yes, but he was also a child. Had he committed his crime less than two months earlier, he would have been released from prison in 1987!
I don’t know if my friend “deserves” a life outside of prison, but I do think that the Supreme Court got it right. Whether for juvenile or adult offenders, we need to take a serious look at our definition of justice. I hope that popular culture, including through TV shows, is heading toward a serious cultural shift in the conversation and practices of criminal justice. As difficult as they may be, we need these conversations.
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