Graham v. Florida (revisited) / by richard ross

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Terrance Graham beams with his radiant smile and perfect teeth. That’s the memory I hold of visiting him last year. Today, a year later, I think of Terrance on the anniversary of Graham v. Florida—the Supreme Court Ruling that said you cannot sentence kids to die in prison for non-capitol crimes.

Terrence grew up in Jacksonville. In spite of “The Sunshine State” license plate motto, Florida can be brutal. It is a balkanized population of wealthy retirees, sophisticated yet hedonistic tourists, a northern part of the state, which thinks very southern, and a southern portion of the state with somewhat northern values. Amidst this place that is very urban, very rural, very Cuban, very Dominican, very Haitian are pockets of extreme poverty primarily populated by people of color.

Jacksonville—the hub of northeast Florida—has a major locus of poverty: it is here that Terrence lived with his Mother Mary. Mary and her husband would host crack parties on the regular. “I would put down a plate of food and feed the youngest, then it would go up to the next child, then Terrance, then Michael the oldest. If there was anything left on the plate, I would eat it. Yeah, we weren’t the Brady Bunch.”

The geography of poverty within this environment may be useful in understanding why a 17-year old boy was arrested outside a convenience store with three friends. Terrence hit the owner with a small baseball bat as they were fleeing the store with loot in hands. Although no one was knocked unconscious, and no one was killed, a young boy, barely a teen, committed a non-capitol offense and he received a life sentence.

May 17th 2010—(seven years past) The Supreme Court said this practice would stop.

May 21, 2026 is the tentative release date for Terrence who was incarcerated in 2004. After twenty-two years for a mistake he made as a teenager, he will be 41. His incarceration will have cost the State of Florida more than a million dollars.

His last disciplinary report was coincidentally right after I visited a year ago. He was put in the hole for two months where he lost 20 pounds. This is Florida State Prison in Starke.

Relieving Terrance from the hopelessness of life without parole is a first step. Offering rehabilitation, better resources for family, schools, and children to prevent these environments from breeding little more than despair still remains a dream.

Brian Gowdy argued his first Supreme Court case seven years ago and succeeded. Bryan Stevenson made the second big step with Miller v Alabama and juvenile Capitol cases. We have so much farther to go on this road to treat people fairly—to simply treat them as human beings. But take a moment and remember this is the seventh anniversary of Graham v. Florida, an important step toward treating all people, especially children, with a degree of common sense.

-May 23rd, 2017 "I'm just trying to tell somebody, everybody, INMATES LIVES MATTER"