Editorial & Opinion

The time is now to pass Mario’s Bill and reform juvenile sentencing in RI

“Children are simultaneously the most vulnerable members of our society and our most valuable resource for building our future. We must never discard a child as being beyond the hope of redemption. Redemption is one of our highest values, and it is, in a word, what [this bill] is about. We must leave open the possibility of redemption for all kids.”
Photo for The time is now to pass Mario’s Bill and reform juvenile sentencing in RI

Published on May 24, 2021
By Shivani Nishar

Two years ago, Cyntoia Brown became a household name when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted her clemency. Brown, a young Black woman, served fifteen years of a life sentence for acting in self-defense and killing a man when she was sixteen and solicited for sex work. Her case garnered national attention, undergoing several publicity cycles – first in 2017-2018 at the height of the #MeToo movement and again in 2019 when celebrities such as Kim Kardashian publicly posted their dissent with her sentence. Brown was 31 when she was finally released from incarceration and her experiences reinvigorated debates on sentencing juveniles to life without parole.

Nationwide, courts disproportionately target poor, youth of color with sentences of life without parole (LWOP). The Sentencing Project reported in 2012 that of the nation’s juveniles who were serving LWOP sentences, 31.5% grew up in public housing, and only 46.6% reported attending school with 84.4% reporting having been expelled or suspended at some point in their academic career. In 2009, the ACLU reported that while Black people only constituted 13% of the U.S. population, they made up 56.1% of those serving LWOP for offenses committed as a juvenile.

Though the Supreme Court ruled against mandatory LWOP for minors in June 2012, approximately 1,465 children were serving LWOP sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 18 at the beginning of 2020. Presently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have banned sentencing juveniles to LWOP. In Rhode Island, there are no juveniles serving LWOP though there is also no legal statute against the practice. However, right now there are incarcerated people who were sentenced as adults while minors serving consecutive sentences, pushing out their eligibility for a parole hearing by several decades. This is what happened to Mario Monteiro.

Mario’s Bill

Mario Monteiro is an activist who has been incarcerated at the ACI since 2001, when he was only 17. He was the first juvenile in Rhode Island to be sentenced under a newly established statute which mandated consecutive life sentences for convictions of first degree murder that involved a firearm. He explained to me that “not all juveniles are doing extreme sentences because they committed heinous crimes. They have these sentences because they fall under sentencing guidelines that came from tough on crime policies to target repeat adult offenders. In Rhode Island, you have mandatory sentencing that unfairly impacts young children.” Mario was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, one for the actual crime and one for using a firearm during the crime, making him ineligible to stand before a parole board for 30 years. When he was 19, he was moved from Maximum Security to High Security, where he spent his formative years confined to a solitary cell.

In 2016, another incarcerated individual gave Mario a list of bills that were being heard in the legislature that year. Among them was a juvenile sentencing bill that proposed that juveniles who were sentenced as adults should be allowed to see a parole board after serving 15 years of their sentence to prove their rehabilitation. For four years, the House Judiciary Committee held the bill for further study, undoubtedly influenced by the severe backlash the bill faced, particularly from Warwick legislators and constituents who recounted the story of Craig Price. Price was arrested at the age of 16 for four murders and is serving his sentences in Florida. Despite these setbacks in the House, the bill did pass the Senate in 2017.

During this time, Mario spoke to other juvenile lifers in the ACI and wrote to many external organizations to garner support for the legislation. He joined Rhode Island’s chapter of Black & Pink, a prison abolitionist organization, and worked with them and family members to contact state legislators.

In 2020, Representative Julie Casimiro met with Mario and his incarcerated colleague Marvin Rubio to modify what was now named Mario’s Bill and re-introduce it to the House. The new bill would only apply to individuals who were sentenced after January 1st, 1991, two years after Craig Price was arrested. Additionally, anyone receiving a sentence of LWOP in the future would not receive the protections afforded by this bill. Once again, the bill did not move forward, this time due to the ongoing pandemic.

This year, Mario’s Bill is once again up for consideration. The House Judiciary Committee recently heard testimony for the bill (H5144) on March 4th; unlike previous iterations, this House version of Mario’s Bill expressly prohibits LWOP sentences for juveniles. On May 10th, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from eight people, out of a larger group that was restricted due to time constraints, all of whom argued in support of the bill (S0333). The current Senate version does not prohibit LWOP.

Experts testify in support

Michael DiLauro from the Public Defender’s Office began, stating that this bill would “allow a reasonable amount of time for parole consideration when the crime was committed by a child.” He argued that Mario’s Bill “is entirely consistent with what we know and what we’ve learned about adolescent brain development… what we’re doing when we lock up children and throw away the key is we’re ignoring the fact that these are people that are not yet fully formed. When we throw away the key we’re saying that they’re incapable of being rehabilitated, they’re incapable of being changed. And we know that that’s not true.”

Adding to Michael’s testimony, Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the Executive Director of RI Kids Count, shared that “according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the part of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us fully think through the implications of our behaviour, the frontal cortex, develops beginning in adolescence and continuing into early adulthood.” Elaborating, Bryant testified that “the ongoing development of the brain means that adolescents make decisions and solve problems differently than adults. Adolescents are more likely to be impulsive and engaged in risk taking behaviors. For that reason, it is very important that there is an opportunity for parole review for people who committed their crimes before age 18… we need to be able to know that there is an opportunity for rehabilitation and there is an opportunity for someone to turn their life around.”

Dee Jensen, Mario’s aunt, read written testimony from Mario who emphasized the importance of considering the numerous factors that may lead a child to committing a crime. He wrote, “As a child, I had moved through the system of multiple abusive group homes and by the age of nine, both of my parents were deceased. Over the next seven years at the hands of my legal guardian, I endured many forms of physical and emotional abuse. By the age of 12 it was common for my step-mother to involve me in her criminal lifestyle of drug use, packing drugs, and making deliveries. Refusing her demands ended in beatings. Finally, at the age of 16, I took control and I decided to escape this life which was devoid of any love, support, or guidance. I foolishly turned to the streets and eventually a gang, believing it was a solution to the toxic environment that was my home. I was blinded by impulsiveness and inability to comprehend the lifelong consequences that this choice would have. Without ever having been in trouble before, I managed in a span of one year to throw away my life and take away the life of Mr. Ron Pov… I will live with this for the rest of my life and forever be sorry and remorseful. I have spent the last 20 years of incarceration facing up to this tragedy by believing in what is a central point of this legislation before you: youth are not beyond change and they have redemptive qualities which allow them to be capable of mature adults who are productive contributors to society.”

Steven Brown from the ACLU urged the Senate Judiciary to consider adopting an amendment that would change the bill’s language to reflect the House bill text, which they fully support. As currently written, the Senate bill allows juveniles to be given a sentence of LWOP while the House bill ensures that all juveniles have the right to be heard before the parole board after completing 15 years of their sentence. Brown continued, “It simply should not be the case that a person under 18 years of age is deemed irredeemable and is locked away automatically for the entirety of their life.”

Looking forward

As a former prosecutor who originally denied Cyntoia Brown’s appeal but went on to argue for her release, Preston Shipp is now the senior policy counsel for The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, an organization that works to end life without parole and other extreme sentences for juveniles. He wrote to the Rhode Island General Assembly in support of Mario’s Bill saying, “Children are simultaneously the most vulnerable members of our society and our most valuable resource for building our future. We must never discard a child as being beyond the hope of redemption. Redemption is one of our highest values, and it is, in a word, what H5144/S333 is about. We must leave open the possibility of redemption for all kids.”

If successful, Mario’s Bill would positively impact eight incarcerated people in Rhode Island over the next decade, including Mario, 75% of whom are people of color. Each person would be given the chance to stand before the parole board after serving 15 years of their sentence. Heartened by the continued outpouring of community support, Mario is hopeful that 2021 is the year Rhode Island takes this step forward in reforming juvenile sentencing. He says, “I want to use my experience as a teaching tool for other young boys and girls so they can avoid situations that I put myself in. I’m hopeful that the legislators recognize that young kids have the ability to change. If this bill passes, it allows me to prove that change is something that happens all the time, for a lot of people.”

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