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We Need Justice Reform: 6 Life Sentences for 15-Year-Old

We Need Justice Reform: 6 Life Sentences for 15-Year-Old

Travion Blount was just 15 when he made a poor life choice: helping two of his 18-year-old friends rob a house party, stealing drugs, cash, cell phones and more from the teenage attendees. While the teens were armed, not a single shot was fired, although one of the older boys hit someone with his gun during the commission of the crime. Now, Blount is looking at six life sentences, and will probably die in jail.

What went wrong here?

Blount became the victim of a tangled justice system that cannot seem to achieve an even keel when it comes to meting out justice appropriate to the crime. While environmental and white collar criminals routinely walk free or receive minimal punishments like a slap on the wrist, youth offenders and many men of color are clogging the justice system, sometimes for relatively minor crimes, sometimes for more major ones. What Blount’s case highlights is that it’s time for young offenders to be given a closer look, and for us to rethink the way we handle violent crime in the United States, because the current system is clearly not working.

The crime Blount participated in was indubitably unacceptable, and he had a choice of pleading or going to trial. His decision to go to trial is what led to the sentence, which was meted out on the grounds that he was guilty on all 24 firearms counts (for each time he or an accomplice held a gun on someone), carrying a maximum sentence of 118 years. The six life sentences were in addition to these, effectively ensuring that Blount will live and die in prison unless he’s able to secure compassionate release due to extreme illness or age.

It’s highly likely he’ll die in prison before that happens, though. Thus, another young Black man has been taken off the streets for good as a result of a justice system that does things like arresting Black students for waiting for the bus. Should people be receiving life sentences for nonviolent crimes? This sentence in particular sets a precedent: experts believe it’s the longest sentence ever for any teen offender in a crime that didn’t involve murder.

What could have gone differently in his case?

He could have been treated with more leniency, given his age, and the structure of the sentence could be varied to account for the fact that the weapons charges obviously occurred in the midst of a flurry of events; should they really be served consecutively? Or would concurrent criminal sentences be sufficient? And is sending Blount to prison the best approach? If the focus of the justice system is penal, yes, but if the goal is restorative justice and rehabilitation, he might be better suited on parole and under supervision while he completes his education and participates in community-based programs and other interventions intended to help him lead a normal life on the outside.

State Senator David Marsden is pushing for changes to Virginia’s notoriously harsh penal laws, advocating for a shift that would allow judges to resentence juvenile offenders after they’ve served 20 years (still more than either of Blount’s codefendents were sentenced to). This approach would allow a judge to reevaluate a case and consider whether the inmate has demonstrated sufficient development and reform, but it still doesn’t address the core issues of whether juveniles belong in prison at all, especially in the case of nonviolent crimes. Are Blount and teens like him best served behind prison walls?

If he survives to age 60 in the harsh environment of prison, which tends to come with considerable risks including increased risk of mental health conditions, physical assault, sexual assault, and a variety of health problems, he’ll be eligible to apply for “geriatric release,” and it might be the next time he sees the sun as a free man unless society reforms the justice system quite radically.

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Photo credit: Garry Knight.

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145 comments

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4:59AM PDT on Aug 14, 2014

Thank you

2:16PM PST on Jan 17, 2014

how sad and unnecessary and excessive

8:06AM PST on Dec 30, 2013

What about the Bush era War criminals that sent thousands of our young to their deaths???

8:22PM PST on Dec 19, 2013

And, unfortunately, once he's spent most of his life in jail, it's going to be very unlikely he'll ever be able to transition back into any kind of normal life. It didn't sound like his life was very 'normal' to begin with, or he wouldn't have made those kinds of 'choices'.I'd call them compulsions arising from habits of thought common to the people around him. People who are heavy into guns have their own habits of thought that seem pretty rediculous to those of us who don't do guns, and to call the resulting behavior 'choices' is a mis-use of words.

8:41AM PST on Dec 16, 2013

Yes Wanda,

I think we can all determine

how much you lack the capacity for seeing this for what it is.

8:31PM PST on Dec 14, 2013

There can be no doubt about it. This young man was punished for exercising his right to a trial. The offences described above do not merit the sentence, which is assuredly cruel and unusual. It further serves to show our efforts at reform through peaceful demonstration, voting, and letter writing, are not working, are largely disregarded, and that rebellion is our only resort if we wish to retain our freedoms.

7:31PM PST on Dec 13, 2013

I am not seeing where he assaulted anyone. What horrible physical damage did he do?

Why do I have the feeling that if the kid was white it wouldn't have been this kind of draconian sentence?

If he had been rich there would have been no contest he never would have spent the night in jail.

8:30AM PST on Dec 13, 2013

There was obvious racial bias in the sentencing. Great comment Brian D. very true.
Thanks for sharing

11:42PM PST on Dec 12, 2013

Of course the criminal justice system is racially biased. By incarcerating so many minorities, you're preventing them from voting. This, along with claims of voter fraud, and gerrymandering are some of the Republicans' last desperate attempts to hang on to what power they still have. But as our nation becomes more diversified and progressive, it is a battle they will ultimately lose. As for this particular crime, tough it does deserve some punishment, it makes no sense that this kid, as it stands now, will spend more time in jail than many murderers and rapists.

8:42PM PST on Dec 11, 2013

Michael T. - I am having trouble accepting your thinking that the criminal is a victim.

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