The Collegian
Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Constitution Day speaker against mandatory minimum jail time

The U.S. Supreme Court should not sentence anyone to life without parole because it is cruel and unusual, Congressman Bobby Scott said in his Constitution Day speech at the T. C. Williams School of Law on Monday.

The speech, held in the Moot Courtroom before an audience of about 45 law students, was co-sponsored by members of the American Constitution Society (ACS) and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA).

Scott and Julie McConnell, the director of the children's defense clinic at University of Richmond, spoke about the effects of the June 25 United States Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, in which the court decided that the mandatory sentence of life in jail without parole was unconstitutional for juveniles, even in the case of murder, because it violated the eighth amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

Scott called the current U.S. parole plan liberal and deceitful and said that making children do adult time for their crimes would increase the country's crime rate. Of juveniles tried in an adult court, 80 percent walk right out, Scott said, without the ability to receive treatment, counseling or rehabilitation.

Current legislation does not allow for the consideration of the child's background when considering sentencing, McConnell said. There are 2,700 cases in the U.S. and 16 cases in Virginia of adults serving life in jail without parole for crimes they committed as minors, she said, because the law offered no alternative sentence and no chance for re-sentencing.

"We are wasting $10,000 per child per year on counter-productive incarceration," Scott said. "The punishments applied to adults are not appropriate to children."

Instead, the courts need to provide more opportunities for prevention and early intervention, he said. He has created the Youth Promise Act, pending legislation that will provide financial investments in comprehensive programs for children in lower-class neighborhoods, he said, to stop the increase of youth in the criminal system. A good education has a significant impact on preventing youth crime, Scott said.

Scott took his argument a step further when he said that all required minimum jail sentences should be abolished because they often prevented justice. He used the example of Marissa Alexander, 31, of Tampa, Fla., who fired a bullet into a wall to scare off her abusive husband and was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Had Alexander fired the bullet at her husband and killed him, Scott said, she would have been charged with voluntary manslaughter and received a maximum sentence of only 15 years.

Scott was chosen as the Constitution Day speaker because he was a member of ACS and BLSA, said Charisse Hines, president of ACS, at the post-speech reception. Scott's values are in line with the mission of the organization, which is to encourage people to be active in challenging the law, she said.

Scott is also the first African-American Representative from Virginia since Reconstruction, said Kwadwo Yeboah-Kankam, president of the Black Law Students Association. "This specific case tends to affect a lot of African Americans. We're trying to make our voice heard, as well."

Constitution Day is meaningful to law students, Yeboah-Kankam said, but everyone is affected by the Constitution every day. Without the Constitution, people would render justice based on feelings, Hines said.

Miller v. Alabama is an example of how the Constitution can protect rights, Scott said, while eating a piece of birthday cake to celebrate the Constitution's 225th anniversary. "In this case, it protects the rights of children."

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