This fall, Marshan Allen will attend Chicago-Kent College of Law on a full scholarship. But unlike most incoming law students, Marshan’s path to a legal career began when he was sentenced as a teenager to life in prison.
Allen was released after almost 25 years thanks to youth sentencing reforms, but upon his release he was met with a new set of challenges. With a homicide conviction on his record, he faced significant obstacles to housing and employment. With unrelenting perseverance and the support of family, friends, and an employer willing to take a chance on him at a critical juncture in his life, Allen is now a homeowner, husband, and on his way to becoming a public-interest attorney.
As leaders at a nonprofit organization focused on ending extreme sentences for children, we know that so many others could lead fulfilling and productive lives after prison if they’re given the opportunity to do so by those with the power to help.
Allen was just 15 years old when he was given a life without parole sentence, told that he would likely die in a cell for stealing a van that was used in a crime that resulted in the tragic death of another person. Such a punishment is unique to America. The United States is the only country in the world known to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a punishment that we’re working to abolish at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
Research demonstrates that children’s brains — not just their bodies — are still developing. As a result, they are more reckless and impulsive, without the same ability as adults to think through the consequences of their actions.
They are also uniquely capable of rehabilitation.
Thankfully, a broad-based coalition of bipartisan legislators, advocates directly impacted by the system and supporters in the business community are building a groundswell of momentum for sentencing reform. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions dramatically limiting life without parole for children, and “red” and “blue” U.S. states alike have passed reforms abandoning life sentences for children. Today, 25 states and the District of Columbia have banned life without parole for children entirely. Seven more states currently have no prisoners serving such a sentence, and more states are considering outright bans.
These reforms have not granted anyone automatic release from prison or guaranteed their freedom. But they have offered an avenue for people like Allen to demonstrate deep remorse for the serious crimes they committed, then prove to judges and parole boards that they are different people who deserve to live in free society.
The vast majority of these people experienced severe trauma and violence as children before they caused harm to anyone. They refused to give up hope, even when they faced dangerous conditions as children in adult prisons and were told they were worth nothing more than dying in a cell. Currently 900 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as children have met the exceptionally high bar required to be freed. Among them, we’ve seen strikingly low rates of recidivism.
Despite all these people have overcome and accomplished, their ability to fulfill their potential in free society too often relies on the willingness of others to stand up and take a chance on them.
For example, during two decades in prison, Allen earned an associate’s degree, became certified as a paralegal to fight his own case, and served as a teacher’s aide for business management and computer technology courses. But when he was released, many doors were closed to him due to stigma from his involvement with the legal system. A lengthy application for a barista job at Starbucks, in which he was given an opportunity to explain his past, led to him getting the job. Without that, Allen’s path to pursuing his passion to make a difference for others as a lawyer would’ve been much more difficult. And he’s far from alone.
Through our work with the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a group of people sent to prison as children who have since come home, we know the substantial obstacles to reentry they face. Our ICAN members are assets to society when given a meaningful chance. Because of the intimate knowledge of the challenges children and communities face, they often commit to supporting their communities as mentors, leaders, advocates, and parents. Individual ICAN members have pursued passions ranging from operating food ministries to working in multinational corporations, and we are all better off with these incredible people living and working alongside us — and with all they need to tend to their families, build positive relationships, and become the best version of themselves.
Seeing our ICAN members struggle to make ends meet upon release motivated us to launch the Community Prosperity Initiative (CPI), a national social justice strategy aimed at supporting the human dignity and full reintegration of people who were sent to prison as children and are now returning to their communities. Since its launch in 2019, we’ve partnered with a range of corporations, including Lyft, Uber, Microsoft, Starbucks, Verizon, Amazon, and Checkr, as well as many small businesses. The CPI program has expanded ICAN members’ opportunities for prosperity, while businesses benefit from making this possible.
For example, our partners at Carbon Arc recently launched a 12-week internship program for formerly incarcerated people to learn skills in market research and business operations, an experience that co-founder Kirk McKeown described as “deeply meaningful and motivating to our team.” After hosting a panel discussion with us on criminal justice reform, Verizon Chief Legal Officer Craig Silliman noted that “…the criminal justice system touches the lives of our employees, our customers, and the communities we serve. That’s why I believe it’s important for Verizon to engage on this important issue.”
These initatives show what’s possible when we see each other as more than our worst acts. This is especially important when it comes to people labeled throwaways for mistakes they made as children. Providing them with opportunities for dignity, wholeness and prosperity will make us a stronger, more just society.
Jody Kent Lavy and Xavier McElrath-Bey are co-executive directors of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.