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Opinion | Childhood crimes shouldn’t define who you become as an adult

Growing up in the 90s, I absorbed all of the vengeful “tough on crime” rhetoric of the era.

 I thought people who had done harm had no hope of redemption. I believed “lock them up and throw away the key” was a wise policy.

Chuck Warpehoski
Chuck Warpehoski is the program director at Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration. (Courtesy photo)

I was wrong.

The chance to work with Danny Jones forever changed me. Danny served 23 years of a juvenile life without parole sentence for homicide.

Life without parole means the government has decided you cannot be redeemed.

That’s how Michigan judged Danny when he was 17 years old. That judgment stood until a Supreme Court case allowed him to be resentenced, when a judge saw what I have come to know – we can change.

That’s how Michigan judged Danny when he was 17 years old. That judgment stood until a supreme court case allowed him to be resentenced, when a judge saw what I have come to know – we can change.

In prison, Danny mentored other incarcerated men and mediated conflicts. Since coming home, Danny continues to give back as a mentor, a friend and an advocate. As I see Danny’s impact, I can say without a doubt we are safer and better off with Danny home.

Danny isn’t the exception. Many resentenced juvenile lifers are, like Danny, now giving back. Their success shows Michigan’s sentencing practices are stuck in the failed draconian policies of the past. We need to do better. Here’s how:

End juvenile life without parole. Yes, young people can make terrible decisions and cause tremendous harm. That doesn’t mean they are hopeless. But when the government says, “no chance for parole,” it is saying, “no hope for redemption.” Danny is an example people can change, and he is now active in the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth’s efforts to repeal Michigan’s juvenile life without parole sentences.

Incentivize rehabilitation by allowing people in prison to earn Good Time credits, a means of reducing their prison sentences. Not only does Good Time encourage people in prison to make responsible choices, it also makes prisons safer for people working and living there alike.

Michigan is just one of six states not to allow people to earn reductions in their prison sentence.

This could happen through Good Time legislation as proposed by Michigan Justice Advocacy, or through an effort like Michigan United and the Liberty and Justice for All Coalitions’s goal of a 2024 ballot initiative to reinstall Good Time credits.

Create mechanisms for review and relief for people who have been in prison for decades. The American Friends Service Committee Michigan Criminal Justice Project is promoting review for people who have served long sentences, especially those who committed crimes as young people (before their brains finished developing) and our elders who have had years to grow.

People can change. Plain and simple, people – especially young people still struggling to find who they are and want to be – can change. But when our prisons and legal system do not incentivize or recognize change, they make change less likely, undermine accountability, and deprive our communities of people like Danny who could give so much back. We all make mistakes, and we all deserve to hope that if we do, we can be redeemed.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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