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Why 15-Year-Old Travion Blount Got More Than 6 Life Sentences for a Crime in Which No One Was Hurt

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Posted on Jan 16, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, as one of his last acts in office Saturday, reduced the sentence of a 23-year-old African-American inmate named Travion Blount to 40 years in prison, making him eligible for release at age 55. Blount was serving six life sentences plus 118 years in prison without parole. His crime was participating in an armed robbery in Norfolk, Va., at the age of 15 along with two older friends, both aged 18. The three young men forced partygoers to surrender their cellphones, money and marijuana at gunpoint and were caught almost immediately by police. No one was killed or injured.

The two 18-year-olds, Morris Downing and David Nichols, accepted plea deals and received sentences of only 10 and 13 years each. But Blount decided not to plead guilty and instead requested a trial. The Virginia judge in his case issued one of the harshest sentences ever handed down to a juvenile in the United States for a non-homicide-related offense, equivalent to four felonies for every person who was present at the party.

Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, told me in an interview, “We are seeing in this country over the past 30 or 40 years a significant ratcheting up in the severity of penalties within our justice system, and [Blount’s case] is an example of that.” Schindler explained the draconian sentence as “a combination of mandatory minimum sentences and extremely harsh sentencing, including the ability to have young people prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system ... even if no one was hurt.”

Since Blount’s conviction and sentencing, the Supreme Court has realized the injustice of handing extreme sentences to juveniles and ruled against life-without-parole and death sentences for youth. Schindler noted that “young people generally don’t have the ability to comprehend, to make the types of decisions, and to assist in their defense as adults would have.” Sadly, the rulings were made after Blount was already serving his time.

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Today there are tens of thousands of young people in American prisons. About 70,000 minors are locked up in juvenile facilities, some of which, according to Schindler, “are decent places that are trying to provide rehabilitation and treatment and which are getting good outcomes.” But, he cautioned, “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the juvenile justice system to improve that program ... [even though] there is the attempt and the goal of rehabilitation.” 

The situation is far worse in adult prisons. About 200,000 Americans under the age of 18 are prosecuted as adults every year. Schindler plainly called it “bad public policy,” because “young people are subject to physical and sexual assault, and more likely to attempt or commit suicide when they’re in an adult jail or prison, and they come out worse than they went in, and that’s really in some ways no surprise because of the surroundings and what happens in those facilities.” He cited the sad reality that “young people who are prosecuted as adults are more likely to commit offenses when they come out, more likely to do so quickly and more seriously than similarly situated young people who are handled in the juvenile justice system.”

Public opinion over teens in adult prisons has shifted since the “tough-on-crime” approach of the 1990s. Schindler noted that “we’ve actually seen the pendulum swing back. Twenty-three states in the last 10 years have changed their laws to make it more difficult to prosecute young people in the adult justice system and to hold them in prisons and jails.”


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