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In Wisconsin, advocates are pushing to end the practice of giving life sentences to juveniles, something many other states have already accomplished. A group of them gathered in the capitol Wednesday to endorse a bipartisan bill, authored by Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee), to do just that.
At a press conference Wednesday to highlight the bill, Bowen stressed the importance of ensuring “that we are providing services and changes in policy to advocate for these same young people, who are now adults.”
Dominee Meek was one of those young people, and is now one of those adults. It’s a path for Meek that was shaped by forces outside his control as a child. In his childhood, Meek experienced various kinds of abuse and trauma prior to being sent to prison. “Not knowing how to deal with it,” he continued, “not knowing how to ask for the help, or when I did ask for help not getting the help that I needed, I followed the examples of people I looked up to and I joined a gang. And in the gang, I found the acceptance, I found the guidance and structure that I desired. I found the love that I felt I wasn’t getting at home.” Then, he admitted, “at the age of 15 I committed a murder.”
“And ultimately I killed a man,” he said. “I killed an innocent man.” Meek said he made that decision in an attempt to become a man. “After killing my victim, I turned myself in and I started to become that man.” Becoming someone their parents can be proud of and repair the damage that they’ve done is a chance Meek feels any juvenile who’s been sentenced to life should have.
“I’m not unique in this,” said Meek, “there’s men who I left behind in prison who could do just as much if not more than what I am doing out here right now.” Studies done in Philadelphia have also found that just 1% of juveniles with life sentences re-offended. “You don’t have to be afraid of us,” said Meek. “We wanted love when we went in. And now we want to be responsible, and contributing members of society when we get out. Give us that opportunity is what we’re asking for. ”
Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, had seen many people like Meek. Shipp started his career as a prosecutor in Tennessee, and was also involved in his church’s prison ministry and a college prison education program. “What I encountered in those prisons in Tennessee was a whole lot of people who when they were too young to vote, or serve on a jury, or in the military, too young to get married, or sign a contract, or buy a pack of cigarettes, they were told that they have no hope,” said Shipp. “They were put away and forgotten about when they were too young, in some instances, to drive a car. And they had invested heavily in their own rehabilitation. They were just waiting, and praying for a chance to prove it to somebody. And that’s what we have here in Wisconsin.” So far, 25 states have eliminated life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles.
“Wisconsin is becoming a national outlier on this issue,” Shipp said. And in another six states, he added, no one convicted as a juvenile is serving a life sentence. “So it’s imperative that Wisconsin joins states like Texas, and Wyoming, and Arkansas, the Dakotas, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland. All of these states have stood up and said, kids should be treated like kids. They should be held accountable in age-appropriate ways that focus on the trauma that they’ve experienced, and their rehabilitative potential.”
Another speaker at the press conference, Eric Alexander, offered himself as an example of that potential. In his teens, Alexander began a 10-year prison sentence. Released 17 years ago, today he is the senior advocate for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing for Youth as well as the co-founder of ICAN (Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network). “I served 10 years, which shows that juveniles, children, don’t have to serve 20, 30, 40 years before they can change.” said Alexander.“Children can change. Children are capable of coming home.”
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While critics of sentencing reforms call for the voices of victims to be heard, Mary Rezin describes herself as a crime victim who sides with the reformers. Rezin’s mother and brother were killed in a double-homicide in 1999 by two people, one of them a juvenile. “I know the possibility that a person can change, a person can better themselves,” she said. “There was an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old, and I have come to know, through the restorative justice program, the 16-year-old very well.” Rezin had the opportunity to meet him ace to face, “and I know that he is a totally different person than he was then,” she said. “I see no reason that we should have to pay thousands of dollars to keep him in prison for another 30 years when he could be out making a living.”
Her Christian faith has influenced her viewpoint. “I have a God that is much better than a god that would send a child to prison for life,” Rezin said. “He gives me a second chance, he gives all of us a second chance, and a third, and a fourth and a fifth.”
Calls to reform sentencing laws for juveniles come as some Republican legislators push for harsher sentencing and bail laws. Meanwhile, Wisconsin also remains home to one of the country’s largest remaining juvenile prisons, in Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities in Irma, over three hours away from Milwaukee, home to many of the children housed there. Plans to close the facilities have languished amid legislative debate over new and replacement facilities.
“It costs over $30,000 to send an individual to a Wisconsin prison every year,” said Bowen. “And that’s real money that we could be spending on the needs of our state. And the people of our state, doubling down our investments in community where we know it could make a difference in infrastructure, in education, in health care, in so many things that we know that we rely on.”
Juveniles can be reformed into contributing members of the community, he said. “And these are individuals that we need in our workforce. Folks that we need to be part of our economy — they deserve that chance. Wisconsin deserves that chance. And our future depends on it.”
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