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Leading the march toward criminal justice

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 2/15/2016, 3 a.m.
Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring and best-selling book Just Mercy shares some of the fruits of his lifelong fight to push our ...

(George Curry Media) – Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring and best-selling book Just Mercy shares some of the fruits of his lifelong fight to push our nation closer to true justice. In January, our nation took two more steps forward in the ongoing struggle to treat children like children and ensure a fairer justice system for all, especially for our poor and those of color.

In 2012 Bryan Stevenson won the landmark United States Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama banning mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for children 17 years old and younger. Until then, the United States was the only country in the world that routinely condemned children convicted of crimes as young as 13 and 14 to die in prison.

After that ruling, most states that had sentenced youths to mandatory life sentences gave them the opportunity to argue for reduced sentences or apply for parole. Seven did not: Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Pennsylvania. Three of these – Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Michigan – accounted for more than 1,100 of the 1,200-1,500 inmates still imprisoned for crimes committed as children.

A Jan. 25 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana made clear that the Miller decision must be applied retroactively in every state. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the decision, “The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition – that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

One of Stevenson’s searing stories in Just Mercy is about a child sentenced to life in prison without parole. Ian Manuel pled guilty to armed robbery and attempted murder for a crime he committed with two older boys when he was 13. He was incarcerated at Apalachee Correctional Institution in Florida, an adult prison, and sent to solitary confinement: “Solitary confinement at Apalachee means living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet … If you shout or scream, your time in solitary is extended; if you hurt yourself by refusing to eat or mutilating your body, your time in solitary is extended … In solitary Ian became a self-described ‘cutter’; he would take anything sharp on his food tray to cut his wrists and arms just to watch himself bleed. His mental health unraveled, and he attempted suicide several times. Each time he hurt himself or acted out, his time in isolation was extended. Ian spent 18 years in uninterrupted solitary confinement” – despite calls from even his victim about his inhumane confinement.

Tragically, Manuel’s story is not unique. The same day the U.S. Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, President Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement in the federal prison system for all children and youths, and for adults incarcerated for “low-level infractions” in an executive action that should serve as a model for all states and local jurisdictions.

The president wrote that solitary confinement “has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses. The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance.