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.
Photo credit: Garry Knight.