An Argument Against Life Sentences, Especially For Juvenile Defendants
NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Robert Holbrook, who was given a life sentence, and Ashley Nellis, co-author of the book “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences.”
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The criminal justice bill that just passed Congress has renewed hope for those incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. Among the reforms, the end of automatic life sentences under the three-strikes penalty for drug offenses. That law contributed to the ballooning of the U.S. prison population over the last 30 years or so, including the number of people serving life sentences without a chance for parole. The new book “The Meaning Of Life” by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project makes the case for abolishing life sentences altogether. And today, we’re going to take a look into a particularly troubling piece of that puzzle – life sentences for juveniles. Joining me in the studio is Ashley Nellis. Welcome to the program.
ASHLEY NELLIS: Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And joining us from WHYY in Philadelphia is former inmate Robert Holbrook. At age 16, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for being the lookout for a drug deal in which someone was killed. After serving 27 years, he was released last February and is now an inmate’s rights activist. Welcome to the program to you.
ROBERT HOLBROOK: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first off, I want to start with you, Robert. What’s your reaction to the justice reform bill?
HOLBROOK: Well, my reaction is positive. I mean, I’m always skeptical when you see a lot of bills passed dealing with criminal justice reform because they never seem to take that deep enough bite that you want them to take. However, this is – I believe this is a good start.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robert, I want you to take us back now to your initial imprisonment. What was that like for a teenager to enter prison with a life sentence?
HOLBROOK: It was surreal. Just trying to wrap my head around that, at the time, was just something I couldn’t do. And you had to retain a sense of hope that one day you would be released. So, you know, I was in a survival mode the first five to 10 years of my imprisonment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you grew up in prison, essentially. You were 16, and 27 years you were there.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. The thing is, in prison, when you’re growing up, the stakes are high because, you know, every mistake you make, you know, has serious consequences. So, you know, for a lot of us, we were living life walking on needles – on razors, actually.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ashley, can you broaden this out for us? There are some staggering statistics you’ve compiled in your book – the number of people serving life sentences and the number who were sentenced as juveniles.
NELLIS: Sure. So at the moment, about 14 percent of our prison population includes lifers, which amounts to 1 in 7 people in prison serving a life sentence. And within the juvenile arena, there are about 12,000 people serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just like the entire criminal justice system, African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented. Robert’s father is African-American. And you note in the book that Pennsylvania, where he was convicted, is the nation’s leader in life without parole for juveniles.
NELLIS: That’s right. And the racial disparity, you know, is, of course, all over our criminal justice system – right? – from the point of initial contact. So we were not surprised that 1 in 5 African-American inmates is serving a life sentence.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ashley, this book is called “The Case For Abolishing Life Sentences.” What people on the other side of this argument would say is that you need to have something that will deter crime. You need to have serious repercussions for serious crimes. Make the case – why should life sentences go, especially for juveniles?
NELLIS: There is no empirically evident deterrent value of life sentences or long sentences, just as we know there is no deterrent value of the death penalty. And where I’m going with this is that it’s really the certainty of apprehension that deters people from crime not the severity. So when we just stack on sentence after sentence after sentence and think we’re doing something to deter crime, we’re really not.
What we are doing is continuing to use the criminal justice system simply to remove citizens from society for the rest of their lives. But there’s a point in their incarceration – when they’re younger, people are more rebellious. They’re more risky. And you add a prison sentence on top of that, you’re going to have some trouble, usually at first.
For the vast majority of people who – even those who have committed multiple offenses, they age out. This is a known fact in criminology. They age out of crime. Even the chronic offender ages out by their mid- to late 30s. What we have when we have life sentences now, as a result, is we have geriatric institutions. We’re incarcerating people in basically nursing home facilities. And the Department of Corrections in these states was not designed to do that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robert, I’m curious to know what it’s been like for you since you left prison. I mean, you entered at 16. You’re out in your 40s. How’s it been?
HOLBROOK: Well, I was very fortunate to have a very strong support system – a family support system and a advocacy support system – that surrounded me during my years in prison. So I haven’t really had too many struggles. And much of my work, you know, revolves around, you know, my passion, which is helping other people who are like me and made, you know, terrible mistakes when they were younger – to give them just an opportunity to show that they are not the worst ever created. And most importantly, that they hold themselves accountable and they change themself in prison, as I did.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robert Holbrook is a prison reform activist and one of the people profiled in the new book “The Meaning Of Life,” co-authored by Ashley Nellis. Thank you both so very much for joining us.
NELLIS: Thank you.
HOLBROOK: Thank you.
This transcript is from NPR’s Weekend Edition. Click here to listen to the interview.