Few of us would choose to be judged solely on the choices we made as teens. But that is exactly what our criminal justice system does when it imposes extremely harsh punishments on mere children. Until 2004, juveniles could even be sentenced to death. There are still nineteen people on North Carolina’s death row condemned to die for crimes they are accused of committing before they turned 21.
Today, the death penalty is off the table for crimes comitted before the age of 18. But there are still over 300 people convicted as children and serving extreme sentences in North Carolina prisons. According to the News and Observer, more than 80 percent of people sent to North Carolina prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles are people of color.
However, last week saw some progress towards reversing this brutal trend. The Juvenile Sentence Review Board, created by Governor Cooper, ordered the release of three people sentenced as juveniles. All three had already served at least two decades in prison. In addition, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Utaris Reid, who was sentenced to life without parole for a crime he allegedly committed when he was just 14. In that case, evidence has emerged since the trial of the teen’s innocence.
Even though these four people were never sentenced to death, they were still victims of the death penalty. As longtime civil rights and capital defense attorney Henderson Hill wrote in his introductory essay to CDPL’s Racist Roots project, the death penalty “sits at the top of” the criminal justice system, “condoning all its other cruelties.” As long as we have a death penalty, a lifetime in prison, even for a child, can be framed as a mercy.
Hill is featured in CDPL’s upcoming film adaptation of the Racist Roots project, which tells the story of the racist origins of North Carolina’s death penalty and the modern movement to end it. As he explains in the film, “If you’re going to get rid of life without parole, if you’re going to get rid of mandatory sentencing, you’ve got to take the big gorilla out of the room. And that’s the death penalty.”
Racist Roots: The Film will be released in late March. NCCADP and CDPL will be scheduling in person and online screenings and discussions of Racist Roots throughout the state. For more information and to request a screening for a group in your community, visit the Racist Roots website and view a trailer featuring Henderson Hill here.