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Juvenile Sentencing In The US Is Barbaric, Racist, And Ineffective

Above Photo: A young man is held in lock-up in juvenile detention at the county home school for hard crimes committed. Stormi Greener/Star Tribune via Getty Images.

22 states still permit the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole.

And the conservative Supreme Court has shown a troubling openness to overturning past precedents regarding juvenile sentencing.

“The United States is the only country in the world that permits youth to be sentenced to life without parole,” the Juvenile Law Center notes. “Sentencing children to die in prison is condemned by international law. For children or adults, a sentence of life without parole is cruel, inhumane, and denies the individual’s humanity. For children, the sentence also defies law and research confirming that youth are different than adults and must be treated differently by our legal system.” While many individual states have banned the practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole, 22 states still permit it, and the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court has shown a troubling openness to overturning past precedents regarding juvenile sentencing.

Abd’Allah Wali Lateef, Deputy Director with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, joins Rattling the Bars to talk about the sordid history behind youth sentencing practices in the US and about the state of the fight to end juvenile life without parole.

Abd’Allah Wali Lateef is Deputy Director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. In spite of being condemned to life without possibility of parole at 17 years of age—and without hope or expectation of ever being released from prison—Lateef devoted himself to personal and collective transformation, serving as a mentor, religious advisor, faith leader, and reform advocate. He also studied legal jurisprudence and worked as a paralegal at Paraprofessional Law Clinic, Inc. Lateef was released from prison in the fall of 2017.


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Mansa Musa: Thank you for joining me on this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host Mansa Musa.

The Supreme Court of the US ruled that males between the ages of 18 and 24 do not have the mental capacity of an adult when committing a crime and should not be charged as such. Within the criminal injustice system, this has been a long-standing practice to try juveniles as adults. Since the Supreme Court ruling, the debate continues around juveniles being tried as adults.

Joining me to further the debate is Abd’Allah Lateef. At the age of 17 years old, he was sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania. After serving 31 years, Abd’Allah is one of the 1000 individuals who were told they’d die in prison as a child and are now free. Without hope or expectation of ever being released from prison, Abd’Allah devoted himself to personal and collective transformation, serving as a mentor, religious leader, advisor, faith leader, and reform advocate.

His strategic and thoughtful leadership style has been central to the campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth where he now serves as deputy director. Since his release in the fall of 2017, he has met all his initial five-year milestones. Welcome to Rattling the Bars, Abd’Allah. Tell the audience a little bit about yourself.

Abd’Allah Lateef: Well, thank you for having me and for the invitation first and foremost. My name is Abd’Allah Lateef. I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I currently work as the deputy director of the campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth headquartered in Washington DC. Prior to working around trying to abolish life without possibility of parole and other extreme sentences for youth, I myself as a child was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment, otherwise known as death by incarceration, for my participation in an unarmed, snatch-and-run type robbery. No weapons involved.

The individual assailant died of complications from cardiac arrest 18 days after the unarmed robbery. I was charged with felony murder and charged as an adult, found guilty, and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment. I was released in 2017 as a result of the US Supreme Court case in Miller v. Montgomery, in which the court determined that my sentence was illegal. I was re-sentenced to 30 years to life, having already served 31 years. I was immediately eligible for parole and was released in October of 2017.

Mansa Musa: Okay, let’s start unpacking some of the things that you just outlined. All right. First, you represent the organization campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. And in society today, or what we see in the media, we see a lot of hysteria going on in the media as it relates to young people. And every time something is going on around a criminal behavior and it’s associated with young people, we hear the crowd say, lock them up and throw away the key.

Not so much from society but from people that are in decision-making positions and law enforcement. How do you see this particular phenomenon and how do you educate people to understand that it should be a fair sentencing process when it comes to young people? Can you elaborate on how you see Fair Sentencing of Youth and the campaign for it?

Abd’Allah Lateef: Yeah, no doubt. It’s certainly an important question. And it hearkens to mind to me the super predator narrative and how politicians chose to respond to that false narrative in ways that exacerbated the way in which we are incarcerating youth — Adultifyng children, essentially — And charging them as adults, giving them life without the possibility of parole, and indeed sentencing them to the death penalty up until 2005.

And so when we talk about the narrative aspect of it and how the knee-jerk reaction that some politicians have towards an uptick in violence, it’s worth unpacking that in a way that we draw on historical circumstances. In doing so, it’s always been within the mainstream of American society and the way that children have been oppressed by systems. And the systemic oppression manifests itself in socioeconomic political as well as criminal justice and health outcomes as well.

And so your question is specifically around the issue of sentencing. I would like to say that accountability doesn’t start with the child; no child is born bad. Accountability starts with the systems that are responsible for ensuring that children have what they need to grow, to prosper, to be properly nourished, to thrive and to reach adulthood in ways in which their dignity, their honor, and their humanity is maintained and protected in the family structure, in the community structure, and ultimately in our political structure.

For Black and Brown bodies, that has never been the case. When I spoke earlier about having a historical context, what you’ll find is that the systems are willing to place a certain value on white children that they’re not willing to attach to Black and Brown children. As a result of this, we see disparate sentencing where Black children or children of color are sentenced at a rate 10 times as high as their white counterpart [inaudible 00:07:18] offenses.

Why is that so? Because there’s a willingness to see the humanity, there’s a willingness to value the future, the promise, and the sanctity of white children in ways that simply don’t apply to Black children. So when these narratives that have racialized tones are inserted into our public discussion and discourse, and politicians choose to utilize children almost as the sacrificial lambs for political expediency, we see the willingness to do that to Black and Brown bodies more particularly because there’s no value held for our children in ways that lead to disparate sentencing.

So rather than look at the framing as a spike in crime or the high incidence of violence, the real question is how we approach it as a health disparity, how we see it as a public health issue. Violence is a manifestation of a public health issue, it’s a criminal act issue. It’s a public health issue and it’s rooted in this idea about what drives violence is isolation, humiliation or shame, the inability to meet one’s basic needs, and being subjected to violence.

And we see in communities that are hyper-marginalized, where those very factors that drive violence are prevalent in those communities, children aren’t responsible for creating those conditions. They were born into conditions and in cities and places where there’s marginalization and high incidences of crime and violence, and forced to somehow navigate that, all the while having the deficits that come along with adolescent development.

Mansa Musa: You made mention in your own situation that you had received a reverse on your conviction or sentence based on a case that came out in the Supreme Court. I think it was Miller. And I want you to address this specifically. In this case, the Supreme Court made the observation about the state of mind of a young person: that the young person, in committing any crime, doesn’t have the same state of mind as an adult. And their inability to have the ability to make an informed decision about their behavior and the consequences.

So the Supreme Court comes out and says anyone of a young age, 14, and then it expanded to 18-25, doesn’t have what they call the state of mind to commit a specific crime, mainly a felonious crime, felony murder or anything. Why do you think that it took the Supreme Court to come out — As you already identified earlier, other youth of ethnicities other than Black and Brown — And say what everybody knew all along: that kids are kids and kids don’t have the adult state of mind to understand the consequences. Why you think it took the Supreme Court to come out and say this and therefore open the door for the conversation for fair sentencing and open the door for the conversation for an advocacy around young people?

Abd’Allah Lateef: Yeah. So part of the answer to that question is obviously in terms of brain science development and the neurological findings from MRI imaging of the brain and the adolescent brain. And so the science that Laurence Steinberg was responsible for certainly helped usher in this newer understanding about adolescent development where it was previously believed that the brain developed fully at 12 years of age. Scientifically, it was discovered that that absolutely is not the case. Adolescent development continues into 25, 26. So there’s no hard bright line rule of when that development process is completed.

However, that’s just one aspect. The aspect that is driven the US Supreme Court to get where they have been is the incredible advocacy from voices inside of former or present life sentenced children who are on the inside crying out, rattling the bars, trying to insert their humanity, their right to redemption, their right to restoration, to be seen, to be heard, to be felt. To be a part of a community that they were ostracized from by politicians who misunderstood their behaviors and created this strict accountability for acts that they were not totally responsible for.

And so that advocacy from the inside boys as well as the brilliant lawyers and strategists and family members and community activists and justice warriors on the front lines advocating for treating our children in humane and dignified ways and really bringing up the fact that America is the outlier, right?

As many civilized or industrialized countries across the world have abolished sentencing children to life, America has the dubious distinction of being one of the only countries that still implements that sentence. There was a culmination of efforts that led to the Supreme Court getting into this place where they could recognize that children are fundamentally different; they’re not miniature adults, they’re children, and as such, there are certain characteristics that are transient in nature.

Children have the remarkable ability to transform, to reform, and to grow into the fullness of their human capacity. And that includes having empathy and having a sense of contriteness and rectifying whatever deficits they have as children, in terms of being able to articulate or appreciate the future consequences, of deed being an action, being able to respond appropriately to peer pressure; all of those things that the US Supreme Court identified.

However, the one thing that is striking is that the US Supreme Court talked about the child’s inability to escape the criminogenic settings, meaning their communities that they’re born in. The child often, whether it’s drug-permeated or gang related or whatever it is, that it’s antithetical to proper nurturing and upbringing of children. They’re not responsible for those conditions yet they are forced to navigate it at a time when they often lack the supports and the mental and psychological maturity to navigate those spaces in a responsible way. And so to hold someone accountable at a time where they’re most vulnerable just seems–

Mansa Musa: Inhumane.

Abd’Allah Lateef: –Critical to our moral beliefs and values.

Mansa Musa: Abd’Allah, I was thinking about what you said and I was reflecting on what’s going on in Washington DC. They passed a bill called IRAA and IRAA is Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act. And IRAA says that anyone sentenced at the age of 18 for a crime, after they serve 15 years, they can move to have their sentence reviewed.

So I was on a Zoom meeting and the guy was coming for an hour hearing and he had already served 24 years. The prosecutor was saying that he should serve 20 more years before he would be able to get out and even then, that when he gets out, he would get five years of probation. The judge gave him the hour and the judge noted that the individual, one, had changed, but two, that the intent of the hour was to look at the total picture as you just outlined. So if a person growing up in a dehumanizing, oppressive environment, or social conditions where they have to, at the age of five or or six, start taking care of their siblings aged two and three, when they turn eight, they basically are the adults in the house. And when they turn 15, they do whatever they think is necessary to survive.

But the society takes a position that — and when I say society I’m talking about policy-makers — Take the position that regardless of the age, they should be held accountable. Now I’m going somewhere with this. Recently, I was telling you about how in DC they passed this crime bill. And the crime bill that they passed was if you were convicted of a crime before, if you get in the criminal justice system: parole, probation, whatever the case might be, if you get locked back up for another crime, then you don’t have a right to bond.

But in that hearing they put IRAA on the table as they were trying to revise it. And when trying to revise IRAA, everybody that got out under it, all the men and women that got out came forth and testified that they made a mistake when they were young, but since they’ve been out, they’ve been productive members of society. In America in particular, why do you think it’s so hard for society or politicians to really see that a person can change? Redemption? Why do you think it’s so hard for them to have a redemptive mentality when it comes to people of color?

Abd’Allah Lateef: Yeah, I wish I had the answer to that. It would make the work so much easier. To understand how often, when it comes to Black and Brown bodies in particular, but even more generally the treatment of children, that there’s an unwillingness to recognize the value of children, both in terms of their humanity and their dignity. And if you invest any belief in the value of the individual, of the sanctity of the individual, it will have to be the sanctity of the child who is the most vulnerable amongst us. The children are the most vulnerable amongst us.

This is not an indictment against all politicians because certainly all politicians are not staunch opposers to this idea about the fundamental belief in the sanctity of the child, that no child is born bad, and that any child and every child has the right to redemption and can reform, can heal, and return to society as productive citizens. There are many politicians who uphold that belief and fight for that belief amongst their colleagues. But on the flip side of that, there’s this idea that has been infused in our mainstream psyche around adult crime, adult time. Or these other monikers of if you did the crime, do the time. Or if you’re treating people humanely and in a dignified manner, you are coddling criminals.

All of these notions are non-factual, but politicians often, out of fear of being called soft on crime, will go above and beyond to establish their stature as staunch law and order people. And they will continue to do what we all recognize as support the broken system that is mass incarceration. Even when the evidence shows and dictates that the way we respond, not only to children who commit crime, but adults, exacerbates the harm. It doesn’t reduce the harm, it doesn’t produce public safety.

And so what you would think that politicians would begin to do in a more unified way is to advance transformative healing justice where both the victim and the person who has caused harm are able to heal, to transform, to receive justice that’s not connected to this idea about incarceration. Because most survivors and many people who are in fact incarcerated, are themselves survivors of some type of violence or harm.

Nonetheless, this idea about trying to transform beyond that harm by giving survivors what they need in terms of healing, in terms of resources, and in terms of support. But also giving those who have committed violence what they need to transform and transcend beyond that harm in terms of education opportunity for vocational training, psychological counseling, drug and alcohol and other substance counseling. If you treat the underlying ills that create the harm, then you don’t perpetuate the harm because you are coming with the cure to the harm.

Mansa Musa: As we wind down, I want to go into the 1000 and tell our audience about that because as I said earlier, in Maryland, in particular in the District of Columbia, much like yourself, men and women are coming out, they’re coming out adults now. They went in young and they transformed while they were incarcerated or while they was in prison and they coming out and they doing productive things in society in terms of some of the things you outlined: They are going back into their communities and they’re becoming an instrument of change and healing as opposed to being an instrument of destruction. They’re coming back out in society and making a contribution in terms of being tax paying citizens, law-abiding citizens. And in most cases, a lot of them have come out and became entrepreneurs and created jobs.

But y’all got a campaign where y’all are identifying and saying one of a thousand. Talk about that. Talk about what that is and in terms of the landscape and changing the mindset. Because we say we hold this truth to be self-evident. Well, this is self-evident, so we need to acknowledge the self-evidencey.

Abd’Allah Lateef: Indeed. Love that. And what is, as you say, self-evident is the fact that 28 children have been condemned to die behind bars with the expectation of dying in prison. And since the US Supreme Court has decided Miller v. Montgomery and made that retroactive, there has been 1026 formerly life sentence children who are now free. Many of whom are doing remarkable things that demonstrates not just redemption and restoration, but also the positive energy that they’re infusing into their communities through survivor engagement, youth outreach and engagement, stop the violence initiatives, and as you said, entrepreneurs who are creating their own businesses and creating jobs.

But even the ordinary is extraordinary here. Where people have come from such deprivation and worthlessness and come to add such value to our communities. Some to their families and being an outstanding husband or wife or part of an outstanding father figure or mother figure, supporting their families in the most benign ways but have tremendous impact in their own individual family structure.

And so whether you’re talking about the large and lofty ways in which people are contributing to society through public safety initiatives, economic mobility and uplifting of their community and job creation, or whether you’re talking about giving back around survivor intervention and helping support groups and networks. The litany of ways in which there’s positive contribution to society, as a whole, is limitless.

It’s showing up in all types of ways, but it’s also showing up in ordinary ways and the humanity with which we treat one another and our neighbors and our members of our community and our society at large. Because we have a particular appreciation for life and for our fellow human beings and wanting to be always demonstrating the fact that we are better than the worst thing that we’ve ever done. And so we constantly try to show and prove that through our actions and through our deeds and through the ways in which we show up in the world.

And that’s recognized across the board in terms of people who have interactions and knowledge with or proximity to people who are formerly life-sentenced. They are, without exception, some of the most remarkable human beings that you’ll ever meet and it’s demonstrated on a daily.

What we do know when people are given a first chance or a second chance, is that not only do they capitalize on that for their own personal benefit and gain and restoration of their own sense of humanity and dignity, but our world is actually better because of it. Our society is better because of it.

So it is a transformative experience, certainly for the former life-sentenced child but it’s also transitive in that it’s not limited to that person who committed harm. It’s also the benefits reap to the community at large. And that’s something that we should be trying to do more of because no child is born bad and we are all capable of remarkable redemption stories if given the opportunity to be fully redeemed as returning citizens.

Mansa Musa: Hey, Abd’Allah. Tell our audience a little bit about going forward. What y’all are doing and how can they become involved, if they want to become involved, in some of the works that y’all are doing as we close out?

Abd’Allah Lateef: Indeed. As we close out, I would advise people who are interested to log on to, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, and you’ll be able to click on all of the projects, our beliefs, our values, and the work that we are engaged in. But this work goes through the advocacy work that is happening on the legislative front.

It’s also around community organizing and convening stakeholders together to help create opportunities for people to be released, to stop children from being treated as adults and given extreme sentences. But it’s also about ways in which we can engage with the private sector, helping us support former life-sentenced children as they rebuild their lives, creating second chance hiring initiatives. And opening up ways in which we can help people achieve wellness and wellbeing and have pathways to prosperity and community healing models where we can heal from the torture and the torment that has been decades of incarceration.

And so there’s a myriad of ways in which you can engage with the campaign and the survivors. We have a survivor network as well and family members who lost loved ones to either violence or lost loved ones to the violence of incarceration. And we have support there.

So there’s a myriad of ways in which people engage with the campaign to help support our mission to ensure that children are treated like children and that those who were not treated as children but as miniature adults and have returned to our society, can also have the opportunity to have a meaningful life beyond the walls of incarceration and oppression.

So yeah, I would advise people to log on to and see ways in which they could engage and participate with us.

Mansa Musa: Well, hey, Abd’Allah, I’m going to tell you, listen, you rattled them bars today, bro. Look, I told you I was locked up 48 years. And one of the ways we used to get the attention of the officers when somebody was sick, we would rattle the bars, or bang. You rattling bars. I know everyone can hear this and we thank you for this because as I say, this is proof positive. You’re self-evident as I am, that when given a chance we’re going to do what’s right.

And this is about that. This is about humanity and the restoration of humanity and healing our community. We thank you for coming Abd’Allah and we appreciate it and we look forward to networking with you as we go forward and doing things for our youth. We ask that you, our listeners and supporters, continue to look at the real news and listen to The Real News.

It’s only on The Real News that you’re going to get someone like Abd’Allah, someone that served a lengthy period of time as a young adult, someone who’s come out and has been restored and in his restoration like the Phoenix, he’s doing good works in his community. And he’s organizing, he’s educating people about the importance of our children because if the children are our future, then we need to invest in them wherever they’re at. And we need to invest in them before they get into a place where they’ll have to do 30 or 40 years and then come out and make a contribution.

Thank you very much, Abd’Allah. We ask you to continue to rattle the bars, continue to support The Real News. That’s it.

Abd’Allah Lateef: Thank you. I appreciate it. Absolutely. And keep rattling the bars, bro.

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