Posts Tagged ‘Christi Cheramie’

Christie Cheramie - rehabilitated, but never to be released.

Christie Cheramie – rehabilitated, but never to be released.

More than three and a half years ago, we wrote about the disgraceful case of Christi Cheramie, a 16 year old sentenced to life without parole for a murder she did not commit. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to find out whether Christi has since been released. (And we would value knowing.)

Now a bi-partisan group of U.S. senators have announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, new criminal justice reform legislation that would end extreme sentences for youth, including life without parole, in the federal justice system at least.

This bill has been in the works for quite some time, and we are thrilled that senators included this provision: we appreciate Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for their leadership of this effort on both sides of the aisle. Thanks also to Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) should be noted for their vital support.

This proposal is consistent with national trends; fourteen states have banned life-without-parole sentences for children. Nine of those have occurred within the last three years, including laws passed this year in Connecticut and Nevada which become effective October 1.

Progress has been painfully slow. Over twenty years after the 1989 UN General Assembly vote to open the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) for signature and ratification by UN member states, the United States remains one of only two UN members not to have ratified it. The other is Somalia. The Convention outlaws life without parole sentences for minors.

The USA is the only country in the world that regularly sentences children to life without parole. Although plenty of other countries, including Australia, the UK and France, have life sentences for juveniles tried as adults, they are subject to review, on the understanding that even the gravest debts to society incurred by adolescents can eventually be repaid.

jail_1716047c“The propriety of the sentence is, in many ways, uniquely American,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

“We are much more comfortable with this idea that somebody is permanently irredeemable or beyond rehabilitation, or that they have forfeited forever their right to be free.” This is the principle of justice as revenge rather than justice for the protection of society or for the rehabilitation of the offender.

Around 2,500 people are currently serving strict life terms for offences committed before they were old enough to vote, serve on a jury, or legally buy cigarettes.

Even if the law explicitly rules our eternal sentences for children, there are ways round the restriction. In Pennsylvania, for example, criminal homicide is excluded from juvenile law. But last October, a ten-year-old was charged with murder, in the adult system, after reportedly confessing to killing a ninety-year-old woman. There are around five hundred people locked up indefinitely for youthful crimes in the state – more than anywhere else.

In the last decade, the American legal system has started to recognise that children tried as adults for serious offences merit special treatment. In a landmark 2005 decision, Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death because, by their nature, they are less culpable than adults.

Teenagers are not adults. A simple principle, but one that is applied patchily.

Teenagers are less able to assess risks and consequences and more susceptible to peer pressure, noted Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion. “From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” he wrote.

A 12-year-old juvenile in his windowless cell at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The prison is run by Mississippi Security Police, a private service.

A 12-year-old juvenile in his windowless cell at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The prison is run by Mississippi Security Police, a private service. Photo: Richard Ross juvenile-in-jusice.com

Five years later, in Graham v Florida, the court held that the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution also prohibits life without parole sentences for minors who commit crimes other than murder, citing emerging neuroscience showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed, particularly in areas associated with impulse control.

“What the court has said is that kids are fundamentally different, that their unique characteristics as children have to be accounted for, and that our harshest of punishments are not appropriate.” says Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.

In one landmark case (Miller v Alabama) the Supreme Court decided that mandatory sentences for children should be quashed and the offenders re-tried and re-sentenced. But in states that have begun reviewing old life sentences, (it is a very slow process), many defendants are being re-sentenced, in effect, to life without parole. The Governor of Iowa, for example, simply commuted the sentences of all affected prisoners to a minimum of sixty years, regardless of their crime or the extent of their rehabilitation.

A number of organisations have approved policy resolutions against life-without-parole sentences for children. This body of support illustrates the growing momentum and strong coalition against the use of these extreme sentences for youth.

American Bar Association – resolution enacted February 2015
“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard.

American Probation and Parole Association – resolution enacted February 2015
In addition to calling for an elimination of life-without-parole sentences for children, the resolution also recommends that governments, “provide youthful offenders with meaningful periodic opportunities for release” and “acknowledge the mitigating factors of age.”

American Correctional Associationresolution enacted August 2014
The American Correctional Association opposes life without parole for children in this resolution, and also states that, “youthful offenders convicted of serious and/or violent crimes should be held accountable in a way that reflects human rights, values and moral beliefs” and that “youthful offenders have much greater potential for rehabilitation and should be provided every opportunity to heal and rehabilitate.”

National Association of Countiesresolution enacted July 2014
This resolution supports eliminating life without parole and asks that lawmaking bodies across the country do so as well. From the resolution, “We therefore, call upon State Legislatures across the country and the U.S. Congress to enact legislation that abolishes life without parole for children and provides them with meaningful and periodic sentencing reviews. These legislative changes should be applied both retroactively and prospectively so that no child is allowed to have their human rights violated because of when they were sentenced.”

Let us hope that the USA’s legislators put an end to this monstrosity before much longer. After all, the principle is pretty straightforward has been so for centuries.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Merchant of Venice

Jailing children for life. Hardly the action of a "civilised" country.

Locked up for life at 16, with no possibility of parole. Christi Cheramie is living a nightmare.

When Christi was 16 years old, back in 1994, she couldn’t vote, drink alcohol, serve on a jury, or buy lottery tickets. She was considered a minor – a child. But that didn’t stop the state of Louisiana from giving this 16-year-old a sentence of life without parole.

Uniquely in the civilised world, only in the USA – where children as young as 11 have faced life in prison – are such harsh sentences against juveniles allowed. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits life without parole for offenses committed under the age of 18. This is not about excusing or minimizing the consequences of crimes committed by children, but about recognizing that children are not yet fully responsible for their actions and also have special potential for rehabilitation and change.

Christie Cheramie - rehabilitated, but never to be released.

Christi, who is now 33 years old, has spent more than half of her young life in prison. She’s earned her high school equivalency diploma and an associate’s degree in Agriculture Studies, and teaches classes to her fellow inmates. A prison warden who oversaw Christi considers her a “model inmate” who has grown into a “remarkable young woman” deserving of “a second chance in society.”

But if we all don’t act now to secure her release on license, a mandatory sentence of life without parole means that Christi will die – needlessly, pointlessly – in prison.

A victim of sexual abuse and depression, and caught in the web of an aggressive and controlling older fiancé, Christi found herself unwittingly at the grisly murder scene of her fiancé’s great aunt. She was charged with murder just for being there – even though it was her fiancé who wielded the knife and the chief investigating officer confirmed that was his unshakeable belief.

The victim’s closest family members are sympathetic to Christi’s case. But Christi’s fate is now in the hands of Louisiana’s governor and Board of Pardons.

Amnesty International’s 2011 Write for Rights campaign highlighted Christi’s case, and thousands of letters have already poured into Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s office. Next week, the Board of Pardons will meet to decide whether or not to move forward with Christi’s clemency application – a decision that the governor can influence, incidentally. You can tweet him at @bobbyjindal.

Christi has already changed people’s lives for the better through her work at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, but she will never be able to realize her full potential – and society won’t benefit from her potential contributions – and we all have to keep paying for her incarceration – if she spends the rest of her life behind bars.

It’s time for the U.S. to join the rest of the world and end the cruel and unusual punishment of juvenile life without parole. People convicted of crimes while still children — like Christi Cheramie — should be given a chance at rehabilitation. They shouldn’t be left to rot and grow old in a jail cell.

You can make a difference in Christi’s case. Sign Amnesty’s petition now calling for clemency for Christi Cheramie.

It is worth trying anything to secure her release, but sadly, Louisiana reduces virtually no “life means life” sentences. Even close relatives of Aunt Nan – the lady who was murdered – think Christi should be released.

You can also see an excellent and balanced report, and hear Christi Cheramie’s story in her own words and an intelligent discussion about her case, from CBS, here: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6489113n

I would recommend watching the CBS report if for no other reason than to witness the implacable Louisiana prosecutor who thinks Christi should never be released. His motive, clearly and concisely explained, more than once, is, quite simply, is vengeance. Not rehabilitation. Not protection for society. Not deterrence.Vengeance. He calls it “punishment”,  but that is what he means.

No doubt he righteously attends church every Sunday – what is certain, in my mind, is that he and those like him will never see the Kingdom of God.

Oh, and by the way? When Americans bleat that they don’t understand why people in the rest of the world criticise their freedom-loving country, this is why. Partly, at least.

Your legal system often horrifies us. That you allow it to continue to behave like this horrifies us even more.