Image by James Peters
The men, ranging in age from late teens to early 60s, were all told that they would die in prison.
All were teenagers at the time of their crimes. All were tried as adults and convicted of murder—some felony murder, meaning they weren’t the primary perpetrators and may not have even known the crime would take place.
The United States is the only nation in the world that sentences children to life in prison without parole.
These men, whom I visited at San Quentin State Prison in mid-July, are not just doing their time. They are determined to reflect on their crimes, acknowledge the harm they caused, and better themselves. They are part of an innovative program called Kid CAT—“Kid” because they were kids at the time of their offenses, and “CAT” for Creating Awareness Together.
Kid CAT was developed by a group of “juvenile lifers” who hope to one day convince a judge or parole board that they deserve a second chance at life. Those approved to participate grapple to understand the factors that led to their crimes. They work to address the traumas of their childhoods—childhoods that would be unrecognizable to most children in this country, wracked by violence, neglect, poverty and the lure of gangs.
They even do community outreach, meeting weekly with “at-risk” youth from the Bay Area, to help them identify and manage some of their potentially dangerous, yet normal emotions—such as anger, sadness, and loss—so those feelings do not lead to destructive behavior.
During my visit, the men talked about meeting with people whose loved ones were killed. They shed tears of remorse. They shared their art, their writing, their innovative ideas for joining my group’s efforts to end life sentences for children. They inquired about everything, from how I came to work for this cause to the intricacies of laws passed around the country.
These men are working hard to become better people. They have overcome challenges most of us could never imagine. They are devoted to ensuring other children don’t make the mistakes they made. Thankfully, they are imprisoned in a state that has seen meaningful reforms in recent years that give them hope of a second chance.
California’s reforms and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the practice of sentencing children to life without parole are spurring others to act. Seventeen states do not sentence children to life without parole, and another five have banned it in most cases. There is bipartisan support to end draconian sentences that fail to account for the differences between children and adults.
State policymakers would be wise to follow this national trend. We must ban life sentences for children and ensure that others have opportunities to participate in programs like Kid CAT. These men demonstrate that we are all more than the worst thing that we have ever done and that children—even those who have made grave mistakes—possess a capacity for change and rehabilitation.
Jody Kent Lavy is the executive director of Fair Sentencing for Youth, which works to abolish sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders.