10/14/2011

Sentenced to 30 Years at Age 14

Christopher Terrance Middleton was 14 when he committed several serious crimes in the course of one event in 1997, including kidnapping, aggravated assault, armed robbery and theft by taking. He was sentenced to serve a total of 30 years without the possibility of parole.
According to his attorney, McNeil Stokes, Christopher had agreed to plead guilty to a 20-year sentence, but during the sentencing phase the victim testified she would be afraid if he got out before he was 45. Both Stokes and Middleton’s mother have written about his case on JJIE. His mother advocates for the repeal of mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles, and Stokes has filed an appeal challenging the constitutionality of such sentences.
When Christopher was sentenced, he was sent to Alto, the same youth prison I went to in 1985. I know from my own experience the kind of things that went on there, and Christopher suffered the worst of it. In a recent letter, he wrote, “I’ve been degraded and humiliated sexually, physically, and mentally…” Eventually, he wrote, he slit his wrists in a suicide attempt. “I felt that death was better than serving a 30 year sentence in a living hell.”
His twin brother did succeed in killing himself, due in part to the strain that Christopher’s incarceration put on the whole family.
No one is arguing that Christopher is innocent, least of all himself. He readily has expressed his guilt from the beginning, and agrees that he deserved punishment. He also acknowledges that his victim, although unharmed, was terrified by the experience.
He seems to be trying to live his life productively. At 28, he has taken full advantage of the programs offered by the prison system. He has gotten a GED and finished three trade programs to prepare him for his release. He has also finished the counseling programs available to him, programs that purportedly help to rehabilitate offenders.
What is it all for, though?
What, exactly, is the point of putting a 14-year-old in prison for 30 years, subjecting him to all of the horrors of prison life, and essentially throwing him away like garbage, then spending the money to educate and rehabilitate him so that he can be a well adjusted and productive citizen? His most productive years will be gone, he will have no savings, and he will have no practical experience living as an adult in open society. His chances of getting out at age 44 and making a meaningful contribution to the world will be very low, and could continue to be a burden on society.
It may be that the purpose of these types of laws is deterrence, or perhaps punishment. Deterrence of other youth is unlikely, since most kids have very little idea of the consequences they face. Punishment usually has the purpose of correction. Thirty years in prison is not going to “correct” him any more than the 14 years he has already done.
In a way, the boy who committed the crimes is gone, replaced by a young man who has endured a living hell, who has suffered far out of proportion to the pain that he caused the world, and has struggled to grow and change into a responsible person. Christopher writes, “What is the use of making me do 16 more years when I have become rehabilitated and made the necessary changes in my life?”
This is an excellent question. Where do we want people like Christopher to be?
I believe society is better served with him in the world, working and contributing, than rotting behind bars for a crime he committed as a child.
John Lash

John Lash

John Lash served nearly 25 years in Georgia prisons. He was released in December 2009. While in, he began to practice Zen meditation and other approaches to studying consciousness. He later became interested in interpersonal communication and group processes. He studied and taught nonviolent communication and restorative practices in prison where he also got his BS in human resources management from Mercer University. He is a participant in Compassionate Leadership, a non-violent communication training program, and is a student in the Master of Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State University.

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