teeninjail

In 2006, 15-year-old Travion Blount was party to an armed robbery, along with two 18-year-olds. Nobody was killed during the robbery, and while one person was assaulted, Travion was not the one who committed it.

In 2008, he was sentenced to six back-to-back life sentences, plus 118 years in prison.

When I first read this, I thought there must be some mistake. I searched other news sources to see what else Travion had done to deserve such a punishment, but failed to turn up some murder, rape, or other injurious crime that the original report had failed to mention. Travion Blount, upon committing a crime at age 15, was simply thrown away into the prison system with no hope of return until geriatric release programs become available to him. His sentence is much longer than the average murder sentence for both teens and adults. In fact, it’s equivalent to the 17-year-old who committed some of the sniper killings in D.C. 

I don’t mean to imply that armed robbery does not deserve punishment; Travion committed a serious crime. He did have a gun that night, although he didn’t use it. I am sure his victims were terrified, and they may be suffering the aftereffects even today. Travion, who joined The Crips at age eleven, was not on a promising life trajectory. But instead of doing our best, as a society, to pair punishment with a chance to turn that trajectory around, we erased his options completely.

A “perfect storm” of sorts may have led to Travion’s sentencing.

First, Travion was African-American. Our justice system is distressingly racist during sentencing, and that trend holds true for youth as well as adults. His gang involvement is a serious mark against him, although it should be noted that he joined before hitting puberty (when, hopefully, nobody is claiming he should be thinking like an adult.) Travion refused to plead guilty and make a deal, although many have questioned whether a 15-year-old not taking his lawyer’s advice should end with the same (or worse) consequences as an adult not taking his lawyer’s advice.

But, perhaps most importantly, we as a nation have started supporting the simple throwing away of young people convicted of crimes. The best evidence for our comfort with putting youth behind bars for life? We continue to elect lawmakers who make sentences like Travion’s possible. Travion made bad choices, but they weren’t adult choices. Taking part in an armed robbery at age 15, while deserving of punishment, doesn’t deserve the lifelong sacrifice of freedom.

What makes this more galling to me is that, while we are eager to try juveniles as adults and lock them away for good, we are quietly removing excellent programs that prevent youth crime. In a sense, we’re acting like adolescents: thinking only of what to do with an existing problem in the short term, and failing to see how our actions will fail to fix the problem in the long term. Most youth who become criminals have been exposed to poverty, violence, abuse, and chaos. Our government, instead of making it a priority to ensure that children can grow up in safe, loving environments, is opting to write off  teens who commit crimes as unsalvageable.

I’m hardly a legal scholar, and I don’t know what steps we need to take to reform the juvenile justice system. I’m also not trying to say that teens who commit truly heinous crimes should receive a slap on the wrist and some empathy, and continue with their regular life. But we need to fix what we’re doing with kids at risk and teens who commit crimes, because it’s both short-sighted and inhumane.

What do you think?